The compulsory masking mandate was lifted in Ontario on March 21 and businesses are in the process of returning employees to their offices -- but given the novelty of living, and subsequently navigating, through a pandemic, the dust has yet to settle on what public life will look like.

Brian Rosen, President and CEO of Colliers, told STOREYS that although the government has lifted its mandate, not everybody is comfortable venturing out into the world, whether to the office or to stores, without masks. Colliers’ own office masking policy, Rosen says, is predicated on mutual respect.

"When restrictions are off, it goes back to empathy. The best policy is to work with public health -- we have to trust the decisions they’re making, because they have the insight -- but we also have to be respectful of those who want to wear masks,” Rosen said. “It’s a personal choice, and once it’s not a [legally-mandated] requirement, it becomes about empathy and respect for others.”

In addition to the likelihood that optional masking will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, Rosen says much else will be different too. Companies are figuring out how to reintegrate their employees into clustered financial districts, which will involve everything from hybrid work models to staggered building entries. The latter will occur through flex-work schedules -- that could mean, for example, showing up for work between 8 and 10 in the morning -- as well as socially-distanced work stations.

It could take upwards of two years for companies to experiment with the so-called new normal to determine their needs, but one thing is a near certainty: there will be a lot of movement in the office sector over the coming years.

Retailers See Boost In Customers

Since the mask mandate was lifted in Ontario, Penelope Giaouris, Manager of Perfect Leather Goods Ltd. on King Street West, says more patrons have entered her store, but the majority of them still wear masks even though they no longer have to.

“Seventy percent still wear their masks,” Giaouris said. “They are very happy to be able to come to our store with more confidence regarding COVID, however, because people are unsure if we will have an increase in cases, our team has noticed that people are still being careful.”

Most of her staff wear their masks, which Giaouris says is both a personal choice and an attempt to help customers, some of whom might feel chary rather than at ease. Giouris believes the government officially removing the mask mandate signalled to COVID-wary Torontonians that it is safe to participate in public life again, which is what she attributes the spike in customers to.

Outside of Toronto’s downtown core in Little Portugal, Alberto Richards, owner of Nothing Fancy, a bar and comedy club, noticed a boost in business at the beginning of March when mandatory vaccine passports were annulled. Although that’s had a bigger impact than the mask mandate being lifted, a lot of momentum was built in March.

“I would say 25% more people were coming in when the vaccine passport was stopped, and then it’s been growth since then. A lot of people are coming in,” he said. “I would say people feel more comfortable in both our show room and bar. They still wear masks regularly. There is something to be said about making masks optional rather than mandatory, and I think that it’s optional has made it seem like it’s safer to go out.”