Hard mask taskers: Why regional Victorians still have to cover up against COVID

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An epidemiologist says masks need to remain mandatory in regional Victoria until the impact of lifting the “ring of steel” can be assessed.

State Opposition politicians, including Western Victoria MP Bev McArthur, called on Premier Daniel Andrews to lift the requirement in regional areas due to the lack of cases of COVID-19 outside Melbourne.

But Mr Andrews has flagged that masks will remain mandatory until at least the end of 2020.

He also suggested the so-called “ring of steel” between Melbourne and regional Victoria could be lifted as early as November 8.

Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said that if the border between the city and countryside came down masks would be as important as ever.

“As Melbourne opens up, there are more people mixing and we want to be more careful,” she said.

“In fact, they probably have more cases that aren’t linked to outbreaks and people already in isolation.

“So it’s very small, but still a real risk for regional Victoria.”

A woman with brown hair and glasses smiling at the camera. A woman with brown hair and glasses smiling at the camera.
Professor Catherine Bennett is Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology.(Supplied)

Gone today, back tomorrow

Dr Bennett said a lack of coronavirus cases in regional Victoria did not mean the disease would not return.

“It doesn’t matter if the virus is there or not,” she said.

“If you [wear masks] all the time, the one time the virus might be there, that’s when you get the benefit.

“If it does hit a local community, less people are impacted — less people are at risk of having an infection and the whole cluster is much more containable.

Two women wearing face coverings look down at their prams on a footpath in Wodonga.Two women wearing face coverings look down at their prams on a footpath in Wodonga.
Masks remain a way of life in regional Victoria despite no cases of coronavirus being recorded in more than a fortnight.(ABC News: Jackson Peck, File photo)

“What we have to do in prevention mode is live in a way … that makes it really difficult for that virus to go anywhere quickly and to take off.

“We know that [masks] reduce risk dramatically — in some settings they say masks can reduce the risk of people becoming infected by up to 50 per cent.”

High praise

Top White House coronavirus adviser Anthony Fauci recently praised Victoria’s mandatory mask policy in a panel discussion with Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin.

“I really wish that we could transplant that kind of mentality here,” Dr Fauci said.

An elderly man with short grey hair places his palms on his hands on his cheeks and adjusts a red face mask.An elderly man with short grey hair places his palms on his hands on his cheeks and adjusts a red face mask.
Anthony Fauci has applauded Victoria’s mandatory mask policy.(AP: Al Drago)

Dr Bennett said a time was coming when the Victorian Government should look at loosening its mask restrictions.

But she said Ms McArthur’s suggestion that masks should be optional was not a good one.

“If it’s left to discretion it gets difficult,” Dr Bennett said.

“I’d be suggesting we keep it mandatory in places like public transport or the grocery store — you just don’t make it mandatory all of the time.

“The stores themselves would continue to say, ‘We can’t let you in without a mask’.

“We are seeing some fatigue in wearing masks and as the weather warms up I think that will only become more of a problem, so I think we need to be on the front foot with this.

“The Premier has talked about some flexibility with mask wearing down the track and hopefully we’ll get to that point soon.

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