As the province faced its steepest daily spike in COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) is urging the government to make masks mandatory for indoor public spaces when social distancing isn’t possible.

“The wearing of masks needs to be mandatory,” said SUN president Tracy Zambory. “We cannot be grey in this area any longer.”

She said nurses are frightened by signs of complacency in the fight against COVID-19. She noted that her members will be first on the line if a new wave of illness sends more sick people to hospital.

“We need to be able to keep people alive and out of the hospital, and wearing a mask can really help that. It’s a very simple, easy thing for people to do,” she said. “And if it’s made mandatory, perhaps it will help people understand the gravity of the situation and maybe kind of reinvigorate that vigilance.”

Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab was asked about mandatory masking earlier this week. He repeated that mask use is recommended inside when social distancing cannot be maintained. He said health officials need to keep a close eye on transmission and how it’s happening.

“If we continue to see a signal that transmission is ramping up, we will have to see what other steps need to be taken, including possibly mask use,” Shahab said Monday.

Livingstone said officials might consider a mandatory mask policy if they saw a surge in cases they could connect directly to people ignoring recommendations. So far, he said, that hasn’t happened.

This week, Quebec became the first province to impose a province-wide mandatory mask policy, though cities like Toronto and Ottawa have also done so on a municipal level.

Zambory said there’s ample research that masks can help “stem the tide” of infection. That’s especially true in close quarters. She noted that public health advisories have recently focused on risks in retail stores, notably in Swift Current.

“This has gone beyond the Hutterite colonies …” she said. “It’s not going to stay localized. It’s not localized now.”

She said the provincial government will need to discuss exactly how a mandatory masking policy would be enforced. But she noted that Saskatchewan already has fines for large gatherings and violations of other public health measures. “Mandatory masking would be no different,” she said.

“We need to be stronger,” said Zambory. “We have people to protect. We see that it’s spreading across the province. Now is not the time to be soft; now is the time to take a very strong principled stand for the people of this province.”

But it’s clear that any attempt to institute mandatory masking will meet resistance. Cody Payant, a former People’s Party of Canada candidate, is organizing a protest in Saskatoon against mandatory masking on Sunday. A similar event is also scheduled for Regina.

He said he would not wear a mask if the government tried to force him to.

“If they were to fine me and then go to CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) to try to freeze my bank accounts… I would pull my money out of the bank and cease to have a bank account,” he said.

“I am not going to wear masks. They would have to kill me to make me wear a mask.”

Payant does not believe the “fashion masks” that ordinary citizens often wear are effective, despite evidence that they can protect others from infection. He sees mandatory masking as a method of social control and part of the “creep of leftist authoritarianism.”

He said it’s hard to predict how many people will attend his protest. As of Thursday afternoon, 26 people had indicated on Facebook that they are going to or interested in the Saskatoon event, which is scheduled for noon Sunday at City Hall. The Regina event, at the same time at the Legislative Building grounds, has attracted interest from 18 people.

Zambory called such protests “very disappointing and frustrating.”

“It shows that as a society we have a lot of work to do in people understanding that it isn’t about them,” she said. “It’s actually about the greater good and it’s about community.

“I’m willing to keep you safe, and I certainly hope you’re willing to keep me safe, and that’s what mandatory masks do.”

On Thursday, Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding called masks “one tool in the toolbox.” If Shahab were to recommend stronger measures, he said, “then I expect we would move to that.”

SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said there is evidence non-medical masks help when social distancing is impossible. But he said health officials are relying on people to follow recommendations.

“Certainly having more of a voluntary policy but keeping people aware of what’s out there and how to protect themselves I think is more important,” he said.