By Vicky Qiao—

For many Ontarians, masks are something to put on in public and take off at home—but those living in shelters need to follow a different set of rules. 

As Ontario enters stage-three reopening, regional municipalities across the province have introduced mandatory mask bylaws, which require people to wear masks or face coverings in indoor public spaces. 

But many people who live in shelters must also mask up inside the place they live.

Nellie’s, a Toronto-based women and children’s shelter, education and advocacy organization, has made wearing masks in all common areas mandatory since the beginning of the pandemic, said Cassandra Sharispour, a youth crisis counselor.

“Whenever women came downstairs to go to the kitchen to get food… they would have to wear masks anywhere within the house,” said Sharispour. 

“We have been trying to really enforce that, especially because we have such a small area where there’s a lot of women that have to be in constant contact. So social distancing has been very difficult for them to do,” she said.

Nellie’s has reduced the number of women staying in the shelter since the start of COVID-19, Sharispour said. The staff have health meetings every two weeks, and the residents are supplied with a week’s worth of masks every Monday from the shelter’s housing coordinator. 

“We do try to keep them updated on what’s going on outside and the rules that they will have to adhere by when they go out into the community, both for their protection and also staff protection,” she said.

Out of the nine women staying at Nellie’s, a few have infants and one has a toddler. Sharispour said it’s more difficult to ensure the toddler has a protective mask than the adults. 

“The masks are very generic and we haven’t had masks that are made for children,” she said. “They have to find ways to put the mask on that’s going to be an appropriate fit for the face.”

The shelter has received some funding from donors to cover the cost of buying masks, sanitizers and other supplies. Sharispour said she’s not aware of any government initiatives that provide support for shelters and non-profits.

“We have had donations from community centres. And I think that that makes up the majority of our PPE (personal protective equipment),” she said.

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