An Ottawa school board meeting that moved online after it was crashed by anti-mask disruptors offers a taste of the increasingly polarized atmosphere awaiting officials if they try to bring back long-ago-lifted COVID-19 restrictions, a local psychology professor says.
"I think we're going to be challenged, not just if we need to bring back something quickly, but also [by] what this is going to look like for future disasters [and] future pandemics," said Tracy Vaillancourt of the University of Ottawa.
If a more drastic measure like a lockdown was proposed, "there would be a revolt," she said.
Earlier this week, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), the city's largest school board, held a public in-person meeting to debate a motion fronted by outspoken family physician and newly elected trustee Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth.
Kaplan-Myrth had wanted the board to require students to wear masks again, with some exceptions.
Tuesday's meeting ended without a vote, however, after some attendees screamed and cheered throughout the evening, prompting their ejection by security and police.
The interruptions prompted trustees to reconvene online two days later for a second meeting, which culminated in a 6-6 tie vote and no return to student masking.
Vaillancourt said more split votes are likely and counted several obstacles to bringing back public health measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 — including Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, not following his own advice on indoor masking.
Moore was seen without a mask during a public indoor event only days after making a strong entreaty for people to mask up.
One parent against masking who spoke from home during Tuesday's OCDSB meeting cited Moore's maskless appearance in her remarks.
"There's no wiggle room on any type of mistake," Vaillancourt said.
"There's this whole area of social psychology called confirmation biases," she continued. "If we don't believe in mask mandates and we see that [a health official] is requesting us to wear masks and then doesn't do it … our brain is organized to find information that confirms our viewpoint."
Inconsistent measures from province to province and early public messaging mistakes — such as an overemphasis on vaccines as a silver bullet for ending the pandemic rather than a tool for reducing the risk of severe disease — also eroded some people's public trust, said Vaillancourt.
Convoy emboldened vocal opponents
Vaillancourt said the slow response to last winter's anti-mandate Freedom Convoy protests — which saw parts of downtown Ottawa clogged with trucks and other vehicles for nearly a month — "absolutely" emboldens disruptors like those who showed up for Tuesday's school board meeting.
Joao Velloso, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in protests and policing, agreed.
"The total lack of response from authorities during the protest ... enforced the message that what they're doing is right," he said.
The tense atmosphere at Tuesday's OCDSB meeting also stemmed from opposition to Kaplan-Myrth herself, given her vocal support for vaccinations and other public measures, Velloso said.
Because Kaplan-Myrth has proved a target in the past, Velloso said he wasn't surprised that a "Freedom Convoy-style" resistance surfaced.
Parents protesting mandates isn't new, Velloso added, pointing to anti-vaccination movements that existed prior to COVID-19.
'Sorry to see people disrupting'
One local health official said she's not going to let the tumult at Tuesday's board meeting get in the way of her job.
"I'm very sorry to see people disrupting the efforts of the board," Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said in a media scrum on Wednesday.
Etches continued to emphasize masks as an effective way to stop the spread of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) which, together with cases of COVID-19 and influenza, has tested some hospitals' capacities in recent weeks.
But mandatory masking is "a different step" right now, Etches said, as the city is not in the same situation it was earlier in the pandemic when "a new virus [was] circulating [and] exponentially growing in our community."