Indoor mask edict a ‘handbrake’ on workers returning to office

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Business leaders say an ongoing order to wear face masks in the office is deterring tens of thousands of Victorian employees from returning to work, as the state takes another step out of lockdown.

Despite Victoria recording two consecutive days of no new coronavirus cases and three cases in the past six days, infectious diseases experts said masks in the office remained useful to rule out the “tiny chance” outbreaks have not been entirely crushed.

Despite a number of eased restrictions, masks remain mandatory for office workers.Credit:Eddie Jim

Under a suite of markedly eased COVID-19 restrictions announced on Wednesday, the requirement to work from home – if you can – has been removed and workplaces are allowed to have a maximum of 75 per cent of staff present each day or 30 people, whichever is greater.

Business groups said workplaces will never reach 75 per cent attendance while employees are required to wear masks at their desks.

Paul Guerra, chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry agreed masks were necessary on public transport and when moving through office buildings, but questioned the need for workers to keep them on at their desk and said moving office capacity to 75 per cent was close to pointless with the rule in place.

“As soon as they are in their office environment, QR coded in, the mask must be allowed to come off,” Mr Guerra said. “People are voting with their feet and until masks come off in an office environment, we will never get a substantial return to offices.”

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton defended the rule, saying the masks acted as “insurance” to prevent undetected spread of the virus.

The new rules will come into effect from 11.59pm Thursday, just before the start of the school holidays, and will be enforced for at least two weeks.

“Indoor settings are risky areas,” Professor Sutton said. “We do need to bear in mind that that’s a level of insurance, a level of protection that allows us to go to the very settings we’re trying to get to.”

With offices allowed to run at 50 per cent capacity this week, City of Melbourne pedestrian monitoring shows that office workers are slowly starting to return to the city, but numbers are still down considerably on what was typical before the lockdown began last month.

There were 523 pedestrians recorded walking past the Southern Cross Station exit on Collins Street during morning peak hour on Wednesday morning. This time last month there were about 2000 pedestrians logged in the area on a weekday morning, while in 2019 there would have been almost 3900 pedestrians in the area on a typical weekday morning.

Danni Hunter, Victorian director of the Property Council of Australia, said masks were a “natural handbrake on people returning to the office”.

“Offices are highly maintained, they are well-cleaned environments. We’d like to see more confidence given to workers that it is safe to come into the CBD in particular,” she said.

City of Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp was less critical, saying she expected Wednesday’s announcement to boost visitors to the CBD.

“We understand wearing masks inside can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s worthwhile if it means we can return to offices safely and keep more businesses open.”

James Trauer of the epidemiological modelling unit at Monash University said if Victoria had recorded seven straight days of no new cases, then face masks might not have been required indoors.

But with a small smattering of new cases linked to previous clusters in the last week, including one new case detected on Monday, Professor Trauer said there was still a “tiny chance” Melbourne’s recent spate of outbreaks had not yet been run to ground.

“It is about being particularly cautious with interventions that don’t cause people much harm,” he said. “As much as masks are an annoyance they are not in my view a significant imposition on somebody when you’re balancing this against lockdowns and deaths.”

Professor Trauer said maintaining the requirement for masks to be worn at offices “even though it’s hard to know exactly what the effect of that would be” was reasonable if it allowed businesses, cafes and restaurants to open up more widely.

Some epidemiologists argue the mandated face mask rule could be reviewed as early as next week on the provision that there are no new mystery cases that could not be linked back to an existing cluster.

Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics at the University of South Australia said he backed the “very cautious” move to keep masks mandated indoors for now, but he said if there were zero new cases over the next few days then there was no public health reason why the face mask indoors rule couldn’t be removed as early next week.

“Hopefully the outbreaks in Victoria have finished now or are in their death throes and sooner rather than later they’ll stop insisting people wear masks indoors,” he said.

“It is a very cautious approach aimed at stopping any undetected spread because we do know that there is more of a risk of the virus spreading indoors and all the latest scientific evidence shows that wearing a mask is really effective at reducing transmission. But if there is no transmission of the virus, then there is no need for it.”

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien called for the government to release any public health advice behind requiring masks indoors.

“Victorians know that Labor has imposed restrictions without public health backing, such as last year’s curfew,” he said. “Releasing the advice on masks indoors is essential to maintaining public confidence in Labor’s continuing restrictions.“

As Victoria eased restrictions, NSW imposed its toughest rules since the New Year’s period after it recorded 16 new cases.

To combat what she called the “evolving situation” around the 31-person cluster of the highly infectious Delta variant, Premier Gladys Berejiklian imposed a five-person limit on household gatherings, a ban on standing, singing and dancing at hospitality venues and mandatory masks in all indoor settings.

Travellers from the seven most-affected local government areas in Sydney remain banned from entering Victoria.

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