VANCOUVER -- They are becoming a more common sight around Metro Vancouver, and now Canada’s top doctor and B.C.’s premier are both encouraging the use of non-medical masks when it’s not possible to keep your distance from others.

While she initially wouldn’t endorse their use, Dr. Theresa Tam has changed her position on promoting fabric, non-medical masks for use by the general public. But, she emphasizes, they are an added preventative measure, not a replacement for physical distancing or frequent hand-washing.

“If you can’t predict whether you can maintain that two-metre distance, then it’s recommended that you wear the non-medical mask or facial covering,” said Tam. “From our perspective, it is an added layer of protection, it is for you to protect others. So if two people are wearing masks, I am protecting you and you’re protecting me.”

The premier encouraged British Columbians to follow the advice hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked into the House of Commons wearing a mask of his own.

“I’ve got about a half a dozen of them now, trying to find the right look for me,” said John Horgan at his weekly COVID-19 briefing in Victoria. “I’ll certainly be wearing a mask if I can’t physical distance and I encourage all other British Columbians to do the same thing. I expect if you’re hopping on a SkyTrain or catching a bus …you’re going to see increasing numbers of people who are wearing masks and PPE as they move around our urban centres.”

TransLink is urging passengers to wear masks as a growing number of people return to work under phase two of the province’s reopening plan. Masks are also a cornerstone of WorkSafeBC’s guidelines for workers who can’t keep their distance from each other or customers.

“The message to Canadians must remain all of those previous measures, with this as an added layer of protection,” said Tam.

Doctors approve of new policy

The change in position is welcome news to physicians who’ve been advocating for government endorsement of non-medical masks under the #masks4canada hashtag.

“I’m glad they have changed the tone first from ‘not recommended’ to ‘suggested’ and now to ‘recommended.’” said Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a family physician in Burlington, Ontario. “That’s a big shift in tone, which is great because I really do believe that masks are going to be a key factor in addition to other factors such as sustained distancing measures, robust tracing programs and testing.”

She calls it a good balance between preventing new COVID-19 transmission while being able to restart the economy and wants even clearer public messaging about when to wear masks, how to wear and dispose of them, and recommended designs.

“There’s still a lot of information the public is looking for,” said Kwan. “People are doing a great job learning how to hand-wash, I’m sure everyone can also learn how to use a mask properly.”

Demand surging for masks that don’t look “scary”

While the idea of wearing a mask is foreign and unwelcome for some, local companies have been inundated with orders for fabric masks of various designs and qualities suited to their needs and personal style.

Granville Island mainstay Make – which specializes in custom t-shirts, pillows and home décor – started making masks just two weeks ago, but has been flooded with orders ever since.

“We’d had to lay off most of our production staff, but now we’re bringing everyone back to get on our mask-printing program,” said owner Stacy Hall.

The company has been pumping out hundreds of polyester masks with pockets for replaceable filters in eccentric patterns, such as cartoon pineapples and dinosaurs, plus photo-realistic moustaches and clever mottos.

“We’ve had a lot of notes on the orders, people thanking us for something they can feel comfortable wearing, that their kids will wear without making it seem like it’s scary or something fearful,” she said. “It’s funny: once you start wearing it, you start feeling weird when you’re not wearing it.”