Epidemiologists say calls by business to relax mask rules as case numbers escalate is ‘down the rabbit hole thinking’
Victorian business leaders pushing to scrap mask mandates for hospitality and retail workers are “clearly not following the trend” in rising cases, according to epidemiologists who say now is not the time to relax rules.
The state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, on Thursday rejected a push from the Australian Hotels Association, the Australian Retailers Association and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry who told the Herald Sun they wanted national consistency on mask mandates and warned workers could leave the sectors for other jobs.
Masks are compulsory for retail and hospitality workers in Victoria, whereas they are only recommended in New South Wales and there are no requirements in Queensland.
Michael Toole, an epidemiologist at Melbourne’s Burnet Institute said the business groups advocating a change in Victoria were “clearly not following the trend in cases”.
“This is just not the right time. Victoria needs to just stay steady,” he said.
“People who say Victoria has the strictest mask rules should look at the difference between the trend in Victoria and NSW.”
Victoria recorded seven deaths and 9,752 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday, the state’s highest figure since 10 February.
NSW authorities recorded five deaths and 20,087 cases on Thursday, and are expecting case numbers in the state to double by the middle of April.
Toole said NSW should reintroduce mask mandates in all indoor public spaces, including for employees and customers in hospitality and retail settings.
“If it keeps going like this they also need to also consider density limits and stop singing and dancing,” he said.
“With Victoria, I would keep the current rules as we’re in a very different setting.”
But Toole said both states should encourage residents to wear N95 masks given the rise in cases.
He said rather than removing masks entirely, employers should give hospitality and retail workers frequent breaks to provide respite.
“It’s tough but doctors have been doing it for decades. It’s a matter of management,” he said.
Chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Catherine Bennett, agreed that maintaining current restrictions for a few more weeks would allow Victoria to determine if the uptick in cases would translate to a spike in hospitalisations.
“I wouldn’t be encouraging the health department to reduce extra rules at the moment but I also don’t think we should put rules back in,” she said.
“If this continues to not translate to hospitalisations and numbers stay reasonably low as they are now, then that could be revisited.”
Head of the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, Nancy Baxter, said advocating to reduce mask usage amid rising cases was “down the rabbit hole thinking”.
“Rising numbers should mean we do more to protect our community, not less,” she said.
“At a minimum, workers who are required to be exposed to many strangers daily as part of their work should have protections – it’s a basic occupational health and safety issue.
“These protections in no way limit their ability to do their jobs.”
However, Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases professor at the Australian National University said Victoria should align its mask mandate with NSW and Queensland.
“Masks do give you some protection, a surgical mask about 10-15% and a cloth mask a little less. Masks might decrease the spread and flatten the curve a bit rather than completely change the numbers,” he said.
“If you’re mandating to stop people getting the virus, eye protection is equally as important as a mask.”
But Collignon said masks had advantages for older people who were at a higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying if they contracted the virus.
Andrews said there was no plan to change the state’s mask settings.
“We have masks on in very few settings at the moment. I know they’re frustrating, but at the end of the day, compare where we were six months ago and then six months before that,” told reporters on Thursday.
Victorian opposition leader, Matthew Guy, said he wants masks scrapped in retail and hospitality and for primary school students in years 3 to 6. Students in grades prep to 2 and those in year 7 to 11 are not required to wear masks.
General manager of the Mulgrave Country Club in east Melbourne, Kerry Scarlett, said employees should be able to choose whether they want to wear a mask.
“We’ve got an older demographic of people who come here and it’s difficult to communicate with customers through a mask when we’re taking food and drink orders which is a big issue,” she said.
“They aren’t welcoming as you can’t see our beautiful smiles.”
Scarlett also said the inconsistency of QR code check-ins, that are required in hospitality venues as part of the vaccinated economy but not retail settings, also frustrated the industry.