Editor’s Edition: Mask changes an ‘important development’

Most of Ontario’s mask mandates will come to an end on June 11, the province announced, as the COVID-19 situation continues to improve. That means the provincial mask mandate will no longer apply to public transit and hospital settings, but will still be in place in long-term care and retirement homes.

“While masking requirements are expiring, organizations may implement their own policies,” Ontario’s chief medical health officer Kieran Moore said in a statement.

The decision is an “important development”, says the Public Policy Forum’s Sean Speer, and one that he says will help resolve some lingering confusion about Ontario’s mixed bag of public health rules.

On this episode of Editor’s Edition, Yahoo Finance Canada’s Alicja Siekierska and Speer discuss Ontario’s mask mandate change. They also dig into the ongoing chaos at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the government’s response to it, and what it means for Canada’s reputation on the world stage. They also talk about the Ontario election, what policies to expect from Premier Doug Ford, and how long it will take for a full return to the office.

If you have any policy-related questions, or feedback about the show, please email alicja@yahoofinance.com.

Video Transcript

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ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Welcome to "Editor's Addition." I'm Alicja Siekierska. On today's episode, mask mandates are coming to an end in Ontario, with the remaining ones expiring on the weekend. We'll take a look at what that means and the latest with the fight against COVID-19 in Canada. And chaos continues at Canadian airports, forcing some airlines to cut flights from their schedule in the midst of a busy travel season. We'll dig into what this means for the post-pandemic recovery for the airline industry.

And with COVID-19 restrictions seemingly a thing of the past, many workers are starting to return to the office. But how long will it take before offices are full and downtowns are busy again? We'll take a look at some predictions about remote work.

Now, to get through all of these topics, I'm joined, once again, by Sean Speer. Sean is a fellow in residence at the Public Policy Forum and was a senior economic advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and he's here to help us dig through the policy issues shaping the post-pandemic recovery. Sean, welcome back to the show.

SEAN SPEER: Thanks for having me, Alicja.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: So let's dig into the latest with COVID-19 in Canada. Rules requiring people to wear masks on public transit and in most health care settings will expire at midnight on Saturday. Masks will still be required in long-term care facilities and retirement homes. That's something that Ontario's chief medical officer, Kieran Moore, says is meant to protect the most vulnerable. But Sean, what do you think this latest move says about where we're at in the COVID-19 pandemic?

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, it is an important development, it seems to me, Alicja. We were talking, before we got started, that I flew through both the Ottawa airport and Pearson airport in the past 36 or 48 hours. And one of the challenges with this gradual phase-out of masking and other public health restrictions, I think a lot of people don't understand what's presently expected of them. So in the airport and in other facilities like that, in Ontario and other parts of the country, you have something of a mixed bag when it comes to people's adherence to the rules.

And so you know, there no doubt will be critics of the government for continuing to move ahead with this phase-out, but I think what's clear to me is two things. One, it will, for better or for worse, solve this point I make about the extent to which the rules have become increasingly opaque for people. And two-- and this is something we've talked about on this program at various points-- you know, I think that we'll continue to see people make personal choices when it comes to adhering to some of these different public health measures.

For a long time, I think that policy has been less relevant and personal choices have been more relevant. And that will continue to be the case as this last kind of symbol of the public health restrictions that we've lived under there for more than two years expires.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Yeah. And it'll be interesting to see if it puts, perhaps, pressure on the federal government, which still has different recommendations for different places and for things like travel. So we'll keep an eye out for that. But one interesting thing about this development is that there are still hospital groups and different hospitals that are choosing to actually keep their own mask mandates in place.

The University Health Network in Toronto has said it will do that. Same with SickKids Hospital. And the head of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario said she's concerned about the lifting of the mask mandate coming at a time when they're already dealing with staffing shortages and issues among nurses. So Sean, what do you make of this kind of seeming disparity between what the chief medical health officer is saying in Ontario and perhaps what some hospital groups are choosing to do on their own?

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, I would just add a third element to your framing, which is the Ontario public. We've just had an election in the past week in which there was some daylight between the different parties on this question of Public Health restrictions. I think it's fair to say the Progressive Conservative Party, which won reelection, was more inclined towards phasing out these restrictions than the Ontario Liberal Party and the Ontario Democrats. And to the extent to which the outcome is a proxy for how the Ontario public thinks about these issues, then, you know, it seems like Ontarians are ready to kind of move on.

And so, you know, I think it's reasonable for health care facilities like hospitals and long-term care homes to maintain a degree of precaution, including masking. But at this stage, we're kind of in a world of prudential choices. And one of the key prudential considerations is ongoing public buy-in. And for that reason, I think, notwithstanding, I think, some criticism or opposition from public-health voices, the government has made the decision to side with the general public on-- on this question.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Yeah. And I think having specific rules apply to, you know, public transit and just specific locations, kind of once you started to lift the mask mandates, it kind of felt like people were going to move on regardless of where they were in these specific rules. So I think this is kind of where we are at in the post-pandemic recovery.

And I do want to dig into more of the election results that you mentioned, but before we do that, the last time we were on the show, we talked about the chaos that was occurring at Canadian airports. And a few weeks later, those issues have not gone away, particularly at Toronto's Pearson Airport, which is the busiest one in the country.

Many travelers coming through the airport are still facing long lines at security and customs. International arrivals in particular, there have been cases where they've waited for hours on the tarmac because of customs delays. Air Canada even canceled 10% of its flights going in and out of Pearson in the first week of June according to "The Globe and Mail," as it deals with a staffing shortage and issues at the airport.

Transport minister Omar Alghabra said the government has hired 850 new security agents, as you can see from this tweet here. He's speaking to some of the agents that have been trained. But there are still calls for more action from the government, including a removal of COVID-19 mandates and screening, which some say are bogging down the system at the airport.

So Sean, what do you make of the situation and the government's response to it so far? Yeah it's a fascinating story, isn't it, Alicja, in the sense that the outcome is self-evident. You know, the lines and the delays and the disruption is obvious to people.

What's less obvious is the fundamental costs. You have the government saying certain things, you have Air Canada and the other airlines saying certain things, you have passenger voices in these stories. You know, it's hard to sort of make heads or tails as a kind of ordinary citizen navigating air travel, in Canada in general and through Pearson in particular, who to hold to account for these delays.

You know, on a kind of basic level, it seems obvious that some of these ongoing public health restrictions, including the use of the ArriveCAN app and so on, is having some marginal effect in terms of how quickly CATSA and the airlines can move people through the process. But that doesn't seem to serve as a proportionate explanation for the kind of chaos that we're seeing.

It seems like there's something deeper and more fundamental going on here. And I think this would be a useful topic for a parliamentary committee to take up to try to discern what's fundamentally going on, one, so that we can solve the problem, but two so that Canadians know who hold accountable.

Right now, Alicja, I think a lot of people don't know whether it's the government or it's the airlines. And of course both parties are pointing fingers. And that's leaving people frustrated, but not in a position to ultimately hold of the proper authorities to account.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: It does seem like a lot of the scrutiny here is being aimed at the government, in part because of the mandates that we have seen that are still in place and the fact that CATSA is a Crown corporation.

But I think you're right. It does seem a little bit unclear because it's been over a month now and it doesn't seem like the situation has gotten any better. There are some-- you know, we see videos all the time from the airport where when there's really long lines, but then, at some hours, it does look like things are relatively normal.

But Sean, given that Canada is kind of out of step here with what other countries have done in terms of their mandates related to COVID, I mean, why do you think they are holding out and are seemingly the only ones that are kind of on this path at-- at this point and in the midst of this really busy travel season?

SEAN SPEER: I'm afraid I don't have a good answer. It does seem odd, at this stage, to be out of step with peer jurisdictions, I guess with the exception of the United States, which continues to require negative COVID tests to travel by air into the United States. So in that sense, Canada and the US are, in broad terms, increasing outliers when it comes to the maintenance of some of these public health restrictions.

I would just say this, Alicja. I think that there-- at this stage, there is a threat of a kind of brand erosion for Canada as a travel destination and for Canadian airlines as a means to traveling internationally. And you know, in recent days, a high-profile podcaster has posted about his experience at Pearson. Last I saw, Alicja, that video had something like 4 or 5 million views.

And so, you know, if you're thinking about where to travel this summer or how to travel, I think people will be inclined to stay away from Pearson in general-- pardon me, in particular, and Canada in general, and to stay away from Air Canada, not just because of the delays but because, I think, the perception that the company has not handled it very well.

I have enormous sympathy for people who are going through these experiences at-- at Pearson airport and dealing with Air Canada in these circumstances. Imagine having young children and, you know, being stuck in lines for hours and hours and missing flights and having to make new arrangements. So I guess the net effect is that while the government and the different airlines are pointing fingers at one another, the one thing that they have fundamentally in common, it's in both their interest to solve these issues and protect people's perceptions of Canada as a destination and our airlines as a means of transportation or both will suffer greatly.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: I think you've already seen business groups and leaders kind of raising the alarm on that front and the impact that this could have on tourism. It was Jan De Silva, who's President and CEO of the Toronto Regional Board of Trade, was in particular flagging this at a press conference last month, saying that "We must demonstrate to potential visitors, especially our business visitors, that they can travel easily and without undue challenges to our region. We need to make this a good experience. We are painfully and inexcusably behind in Toronto."

So it's clearly a concern that's not just an inconvenience for travelers but potentially for businesses and-- and the greater community here in Ontario and, obviously, in cities across the country. So what-- what needs to be done here? What should the government and different stakeholders here be doing to fix this?

SEAN SPEER: I mean, you know, in no particular order, I think probably eliminating some of these ongoing restrictions, including the use of the ArriveCAN app, seems like low-hanging fruit. Two, you know, moving ahead with these-- with more staffing at CATSA to try to get people through security lines faster.

I think customs staff is a big piece of the puzzle because the waits just aren't at security proper, they're at customs and, you know, basically all the way through the process. And then it seems to me the crucial part is Air Canada needs to make sure that its customer service capacity is greater and that the people who are on the front lines are showing a degree of-- of empathy.

You know, I mentioned the experience of Ryan Whitney, this former hockey player who's now a podcaster. You know, he talked about his experience at Pearson, when he was there for, you know, something like 20 hours in the past few days. The most infuriating part was he just-- he just kept getting shifted around by different Air Canada desks, you know, after sitting and standing in line for hours and hours.

So you know, even if the airlines ultimately think the government is responsible, I think there's still an onus and a kind of self-interest on their part to make sure that they're not exacerbating the problem by providing, you know, really poor quality customer service. So you know, I think there's kind of a pox on everyone's house and a need for everyone to do their part to try to solve for these issues before they create kind of lasting damage for the country and for these airlines.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Well, hopefully we'll see some developments in the coming days and weeks, although former Air Canada executive Duncan Dee, who has been quite critical of what-- some of the government measures that are still in place in relation to the pandemic, he had told CBC that he expects extremely long wait times at Pearson to continue through to Labor Day. So if you're traveling, perhaps brace yourselves for some line-ups, not just in this month but through the summer.

But Sean, in the midst of all this airport chaos, Ontario actually held an election. I'm not sure if you heard. The results did not come as a surprise. Doug Ford was re-elected as Premier of Ontario with a majority government and the NDP forming the official opposition. Voter turnout hit a historic low, with just 43% of eligible Ontarians voting in this election.

And I think it was a unique one, fair to say, that flew a little bit under the radar and really didn't have, I think, one key issue or message throughout the campaign trail. Nor did people really pay attention, I think, to the campaign trail.

But Sean, what strikes you when you look at these results and kind of the way this election unfolded as we look back on the results?

SEAN SPEER: Well you said, Alicja, that the result wasn't a surprise. And I think that's right, that over the course of the 29-day campaign, you know, it never seemed like the Progressive Conservative government was at risk of-- of losing the election. The only question, really, until the end was whether it would form another majority government or whether it would fall into a minority situation.

But if you take a longer view, it does strike me as somewhat surprising. Over the past couple of years, there's been a lot of controversy and criticism of the Ford government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was on this program, you know, a year ago, talking about playgrounds being locked down and the school system in Ontario being locked down longer than virtually anywhere in North America, to say nothing of other criticisms that the government faced. So in that sense, it is somewhat surprising that not only was the government re-elected, but it won a, you know, pretty wholehearted endorsement in the form of not just returning to government but actually expanding its majority, which is pretty rare for governments to do.

And so it-- it naturally begs the question, what happened? How did this government that, for a long time, was under siege ultimately receive a kind of reaffirmation from voters? It seems to me that most of the answer lies in the, you know, frankly unimpressive campaigns that were run by the Ontario Liberal Party and the Ontario New Democratic Party. I interpret last week's results as more a rejection of them than an affirmation of Doug Ford and his government.

And so, you know, the major outcome for me it seems is the need for some serious soul searching for those two other parties to ask themselves, why they sort of snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the face of a government that ought to have been vulnerable.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Yeah, do you think COVID-19 and the government's response-- which, as you said, was criticized quite heavily throughout the last 2 and 1/2 years, do you think that was at all on the ballot, or that people just didn't care and had moved on from COVID? Like, how do you-- how do you see that having played a role, if any, in this election?

SEAN SPEER: It's a great question. I would say two things. The first is Doug Ford has a kind of uncanny ability to convey to voters that even when they disagree with him, that he is acting earnestly and that he is kind of learning from his mistakes along the way. I mean, I juxtapose that with the reaction to the Kenney government, Alberta, where, you know, setting aside what one thinks about these issues, Kenney-- Jason Kenney was penalized for his handling of the pandemic and Doug Ford was reaffirmed. And I think that says something about Doug Ford as a kind of political figure. The second thing I would say is, you know, both the Ontario New Democrats and the Ontario Liberals, if you were going to kind of characterize their position on these issues in broad terms, you would say that they were more inclined towards public health restrictions than the government.

And so because of that, we didn't really quite have much of a debate like they had in Alberta about the sort of pros and cons of different approaches. You had a government, in effect, adopting a pretty locked down position and the opposition parties effectively calling for even more locked down position. And so in that sense, you didn't quite have the same kind of dynamic, dealing with trade-offs and so on, that we've seen in Alberta and even other parts of-- of North America.

So I guess that's a long way of saying, in part because of Doug Ford's unique political character and in part because of the kind of left-right dynamic on these questions of public health restrictions, it proved to be less of an issue and less of a vulnerability for the government than I think I would have predicted, you know, six months ago, even four months ago, in the outcome of the election.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Yeah. And I wonder how much the timing of it too has just kind of worked out in that sense because restrictions have been eased and everyone's kind of moving on from the pandemic and life is returning to normal. But perhaps the last thing people wanted to talk about was COVID-19 restrictions and how to respond. I think people are kind of, perhaps, just over that.

Now, Doug Ford's first-term agenda very much got derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. So we didn't really get a clear sense I think of what his policy goals were because he had to spend nearly three years dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. And that was just the top priority for so long.

Now that he's elected-- been elected and has a majority mandate, what kind of policies do you expect that we'll perhaps see Ford move ahead with now that COVID-19 is not going to be that top priority necessarily?

SEAN SPEER: I think it's-- it's a great question, Alicja. A couple of things-- you know, first of all, while, on the face of it, the government has won this expanded majority, which, you know, one could interpret as a significant electoral mandate and so on, you mentioned earlier, the fact is that less than half of eligible voters voted.

And so, you know, that-- one can't help but think that that, in a way, sort of diminished the kind of magnitude of the ostensible mandate that the government has. And you know, that will mean that, I think, the government, if it gets too far ahead on certain issues-- you know, I'm thinking of issues like education reform, or health care reform, or spending reductions, or something like that-- they may risk kind of misinterpreting the size and magnitude of-- of the mandate notwithstanding the fact that it's picked up more seats than-- than before the campaign.

The second thing I would say is, you know, the Progressive Conservative Party's platform was pretty thin in this election. That's part of the reason I think it's hard to discern what a second term Ford government will look like in the absence of the pandemic. And I think there now is a responsibility a responsibility, Alicja, for the premier to articulate what those big-picture priorities will be for the government. It will do a speech from the throne either later this summer or early in the fall. It's yet to be seen.

And you know, I actually think that it-- it will be a fundamentally important speech from the throne precisely because it needs to serve the purpose of communicating to Ontarians what the kind of key priorities of the government will be. It won't be enough to sloganeer. Getting it done is a kind of nice idea, but getting what done, and how done, and for whom are questions that the government will be under increasing pressure to answer. And the speech from the throne strikes me as a crucial opportunity to start to flesh out those answers for voters.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: What kind of opportunities do you see in terms of that post-pandemic agenda that this government could potentially tackle or should tackle?

SEAN SPEER: A couple of things. You know, we've talked in previous episodes about the issue of health care capacity. Ontarian-- Ontario has fewer doctors, fewer nurses, fewer beds, fewer forms of medical technology than a lot of [? peer ?] jurisdictions. And so, you know, it seems to me a combination of major new public investments and some kind of structural reform. To increase capacity seems like kind of an inevitable area of focus for this government.

In that vein, let me just make a plug, Alicja. The Ontario Medical Association has a really interesting and innovative idea to create what they're calling surgical-- community surgical centers, so basically taking a number of pretty common routine surgeries like nips-- hips and knees, removing them from hospitals, and in effect, doing them out of these community centers that would have something of economies of scale, et cetera.

So that's an idea and a kind of area of focus that I think the government ought to prioritize. The second is a broad set of issues that I would characterize as regulatory reform, and by which I mean, it takes too long to build homes in this province, it takes too long to build public transit in this province. There's a kind of series of policies, from community consultation to environmental assessments, to zoning laws and development costs, all of which make it hard to build things in the province.

And I think, if the premier has any mandate coming out of this election-- and as I said in my previous answer, it's a bit difficult to discern what an overall mandate is-- I think this issue of making it easier to build things in Ontario is one where there is a lot of support. And-- and you know, I if I was advising the premier, I'd be leaning in.

I think all options need to be on the table to kind of create the conditions to get things done, as the party's slogan put it in the provincial campaign.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And we'll see what they do get done in the coming weeks and months and years. But Sean, before we wrap up the show, I know we've been discussing a lot about the return to normal. But there's one area that has yet to see a return to kind of pre-pandemic normal and levels, and that's the downtown office. The head of Avison Young, which is a Canadian commercial real estate company, told "The Globe and Mail" this week that the remote work is here to stay for now, or at least for several years.

He said, quote, the beginning of the full return to office is two years from now, and I would say the earliest that we're going to get everybody back to the office is five years. It seems like a long time from now, and it flies in contrast to what some other companies are doing. I think of Elon Musk at Tesla, who essentially told his executives that you need to get back to the office or else. So Sean, what do you think of-- of the return to office and the fact that some people think it's not going to actually happen for several years?

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. I think, if I was a betting person, you know, my bet would be that we'll get back to something resembling pre-pandemic work patterns and practices sooner rather than later. You know, I think, probably, we'll get through this summer on a kind of ongoing hybrid model. There's a lot of senior executives and-- and CEOs and-- and other business leaders who you might like the idea of being able to work from their cottage or their second home or whatever through the summer.

But I think, after Labor Day, you know, assuming that there is no new developments on the pandemic front, I think we'll start to see growing expectations on the part of employers that, all things being equal, their staff ought to be in the office. There's benefits from network effects and so on. And-- and so, you know, I think, as a default, sooner rather than later, you know, we'll start to see work patterns look something more like the pandemic-- pre-pandemic than during the pandemic.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Now, it does-- we've discussed before that this is turning into more of an employee market, that there's more power for workers than ever before. And it does seem like a lot of workers do actually want a hybrid model. So do you think there might be-- we might see some more pushback or, you know, companies being forced into that flexibility as a result of this changing labor market?

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, I think there's something to that. You know, we know, for instance, Alicja, that, particularly in around our major centers like the city of Toronto, some employees got out of the city during the pandemic. They now own homes in places like Coburg or-- or Markham or, you know, wherever. And so the prospect of now-- you they, kind of bet, in effect, that a hybrid model would be with us indefinitely.

And so if there is pressure from employers to get back into the office, you know, something like five days a week, it will impose real pressure on those people to kind of revisit their living arrangements. And so yeah, I think the short answer is, yeah, this is going to be something of a negotiation between employers and employees.

But you know, as I said earlier, my-- my bet is that, when we look back at this experience, it's not going to-- it will not have precipitated a kind of fundamental new way of thinking about where people live and work, that, you know, if you take a kind of long enough view of these things, the trend towards urbanization and the concentration of investment employment in our major cities is, you know, something that has been durable, and even in the face of previous pandemics, for instance. And I think, you know, with a long enough horizon, that we'll get back mostly on that track before too long.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And I think you're already seeing that reflected in some of the real estate prices that we're seeing, particularly in condos and in the downtown areas in places like Toronto and Vancouver, where they were declining before. Now they're-- that demand is there. People are coming back to the city.

But Sean, that is all the time we have for today. Thank you so much again for joining us.

SEAN SPEER: It's always a pleasure, Alicja.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And as always, if you're looking for the latest business news, please check out the Yahoo Finance Canada website. And if you have any questions or feedback about the show, please feel free to email me. I'm at Alicja@YahooFinance.com. Thanks for tuning in.

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