Sydney’s New Mask Rules: When You Need to Wear One and Why

Mask rules NSW

My morning walk today was punctuated by the sound of footsteps running up behind me and a loud shout. Headphones on and chatting to family, I turned around somewhat startled to see a police officer looking pretty displeased.

“Mask,” he shouted.

“I’m sorry, I’m just going for a walk, I thought we didn’t have to wear one if we were exercising?”

“No, you have to wear one out of the house. It’s only if you’re… properly exercising that you don’t”

Fair enough, I thought, and promptly masked up. I’m lucky he wasn’t in a ticketing mood, else that could have cost me $1000 – $1500 for breaching a public health order and $500 for failure to comply with wearing or carrying a mask.

It’s day one of NSW’s new mask mandate and while there have long been calls to instate the policy since the start of the Delta outbreak, as with most NSW health policy, it’s better late than never.

So, when do you need to wear one, what constitutes exercise, and how much trouble can you get in for failing to comply? All the details you need below.

Mask Rules NSW

Everyone above the age of 12 in NSW has to wear a mask right now for most situations outside of the house.

Mask wearing is not required in the home, however NSW Health “strongly recommends” wearing a facemask if you are visiting people you don’t live with.

The reasons for doing so would be providing care or as part of a singles bubble.

The only times you don’t need to wear a mask are:

  • If you are eating or drinking.
  • Doing “strenuous” exercise – walking probably doesn’t count.
  • Communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing.
  • At work if wearing a mask would be a safety risk or you need to be heard.
  • In a vehicle alone or with another person from your household.

You can also remove your mask if you’re asked to for identity purposes or you’re in an emergency situation – though it doesn’t state what this might be.

People in the process of getting married also don’t need to wear masks.

Reasons for Not Wearing a Mask

People with a physical or mental condition that makes mask wearing unsuitable don’t have to wear them. This could be a skin condition, an intellectual disability, autism or trauma.

The reasons for someone not wearing a mask are not always obvious, so it’s best to be respectful to anyone not wearing one as they may not be a conspiracy theorist.

If you can’t wear a mask because of a condition, you’ll need to carry either a medical certificate signed by a doctor or health practitioner or a statutory declaration identifying your condition.

You’ll also need to carry identification showing your name and address as the police will ask for this if they stop you.

Children under 12 are encouraged to wear masks but they wont get in trouble if they don’t. Babies and toddlers under the age of two should not wear masks as they can be a choking or suffocation risk.

What Counts as a Mask?

Masks are pretty self explanatory but there are a few caveats here.

Scarves and bandanas are not considered masks, so if you forget yours and try to compensate with some other item of clothing, you can also cop a fine. Face shields are also not suitable substitutes.

NSW Health recommends using masks made with a non-woven, “melt-blown polypropylene layer”. Masks with valves or holes are not safe as they let air out meaning if you have the virus you could be blowing it through the holes.

Single-use, surgical-style masks should be bought from reputable retailers like pharmacists and supermarkets as there is a bit of an ongoing problem with fake surgical masks as demand outstrips supply.

Reusable cotton masks are the gold-standard however, if they’re used properly.

What Happens if You Don’t Wear a Mask

To deal with the public health risk of COVID-19 and its possible consequences, the Minister for Health and Medical Research has made a number of public health orders, under section 7 of the Public Health Act 2010.

The problem with a lot of this is that it’s all framed in the language of possibility, rather than solid legal reality. While public health orders are not laws per se, not complying with them is a crime.

It’s ultimately at the discretion of police officers whether or not they want to enforce the public health orders and issue fines for non-compliance.

While earlier in the pandemic police may have let minor infractions slide, recent dialogue from NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller suggests law enforcement officers are not likely to be lenient when it comes to public health orders anymore. The army is already in place in parts of Western Sydney and the threat of being issued a fine is much more real than it has been previously as the numbers of infringement notices climb.

So, NSW Police “may” (read: almost certainly will) issue on-the-spot fines to individuals who breach public health orders. These are not criminal sanctions and wont result in a criminal penalty, however if you choose to fight them in court and lose, then they can become criminal matters.

The maximum penalty for breaching health orders for an individual is $11,000 or six months in jail.

On the spot fines “can” be issued for breaching a public health order – ie, not complying with the mask rule – of $1000. These can be issued in conjunction with other specific fines.

Failing to comply with the direction to wear or carry a mask can carries a $500 on-the-spot fine for anyone over the age of 18 years. Anyone 16-17 can receive a fine of $80 for the same offence, while those aged 12-15 can receive $40 fines.

This all being said, it’s absolutely best practice to carry a mask at all times, even if you’re unsure if you need one, and wear it whenever you leave your home.

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