MIDDLESEX CENTRE, ONT. -- Southwestern Public Health (SWPH) is now requiring masks in all enclosed public spaces in St. Thomas, Elgin and Oxford counties.

The health unit issued the instruction Thursday. It takes effect at 11:59 p.m., but there is a one-week grace period for businesses to prepare, so policies must be in place by Aug. 6.

All businesses, public transit and commercial service vehicles are impacted.

The instruction is actually two separate policies, one for face coverings in public spaces and a second for non-public work spaces requiring physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and updated sick policies.

The health unit is also recommending that municipalities pass bylaws across the region to ensure consistency.

Dr. Joyce Lock, SWPH medical officer of health, said in a statement, “Our confirmed cases have increased, most public spaces are open, and we have more opportunities to interact with each other. Face coverings will help manage these risks.”

She says an 'education-first' approach is planned when it comes to enforcement, but fines are possible for non-compliance.

“It is an incredibly caring act to wear a face covering because it protects other people from your germs. My mask protects you, and your mask protects me,” Lock added.

There are exemptions for children, those with health conditions that make it difficult to wear one or who cannot put on or remove it without help. Full details are available on the health unit website.

Lock is reminding residents that masks do not replace physical distancing requirements.

The new mask police comes as the region reports a spike in new infections, with 14 new COVID-19 cases reported Thursday and eight on Wednesday.

Masks are already mandatory in other local jurisdictions, including London-Middlesex, Huron-Perth and Grey-Bruce, either through public health instructions, municipal bylaws or both.

Bylaws are in effect in London, Strathroy and Sarnia, among others, but no mandatory mask requirements are in place in Lambton County.