Days continue to blur together as people around the world stay at home and avoid real-life interactions with others in a mass effort to fight the coronavirus. By now, everyone’s been wondering when freedom will resurface and life will get back to normal, if ever.
Several Canadian provinces and cities have started to consider reopening economies and easing physical distancing measures. After six straight days of no new COVID-19 cases, New Brunswick started easing physical distancing measures on Friday.
While most governments haven’t proposed a timeline, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said physical distancing will be here for several weeks, if not months.
Experts have said the fight against the coronavirus likely won’t end until a vaccine is developed and distributed widely. But if enough people get sick, recover, and develop a "herd immunity" (providing the virus doesn’t mutate), or if testing and tracking increase significantly, further laxing of physical distancing could follow as well, they say.
"We will definitely have to loosen up at some point…because how much can the economy handle?" said Rodney Nelson, a business professor with Carleton University.
Not to mention the toll self-isolation is having on mental health.
No one knows exactly when public health measures will relax—even a vaccine won’t mean life will go back to normal right away—but we do know they will lift eventually.
Restrictions will be lifted gradually
According to Thomas Koch, a University of British Columbia professor of medical geography, governments should first look at removing measures that are "already too strict."
Koch said he doesn’t think police should punish a couple sitting together on a bench, for example, because such activities "get people out and keep them from being stir-crazy."
Loosening the grip on physical distancing has to be incremental, Koch said, and efforts have to prevent an opportunity for increased infections.
At the onset, it’s likely governments will allow for most medical procedures to resume, such as going to the dentist or chiropractor.
Koch said restaurants and cafes might start to reintroduce dine-in services, as long as they can ensure customers will sit far enough apart from one another.
"For many places that would mean taking out half of the tables, half of the bar stools," Koch said.
Once a limited number of sectors or businesses are reopened, Canadians will have to wait between two and three weeks (the maximum incubation period of the virus) to see whether the move causes a spike in cases, Koch said. If infection rates don’t grow, governments can loosen their grip a little more.
Saskatchewan, the first province to announce details of its plan to reopen, said it will start with medical services, including dentistry, physical therapy, opticians, podiatry, as well as low-risk outdoor activities like boating and fishing, on May 4. Gatherings are still limited to a maximum of 10 people.
Saskatchewan was also relatively unaffected by the virus, with only 349 cases and four deaths as of Sunday afternoon.
Across Canada, there are 45,791 cases of the virus, with 2,197 deaths. Quebec, the hardest hit province in Canada, has recorded a staggering 23,267 cases and 1,446 deaths.
Trudeau has said there needs to be ample collaboration at the national level as provinces start to reopen to "ensure the progress we have achieved will not be lost."
Saskatchewan’s second phase is slated for May 19 and will reopen businesses previously banned through emergency orders. That includes retail stores, hairdressers, and travel agencies, even though there is no consensus on when people will be able to travel again.
Some experts think travel will restart as early as the summer, and road trips will be allowed before flights. Others say it’s too soon to tell when people can move around freely. Trudeau has also said the U.S.-Canada border likely won’t open soon either, so it’s hard to say when we’ll be vacationing in the U.S. again. International travel is dependent on how and when countries decide to reopen their borders—which depends on virus rates reported elsewhere.
Subsequent phases will come into play depending on the success of the first reopenings, slowly introducing services like gyms, child care, and outdoor facilities such as tennis courts and basketball courts, and will allow progressively larger crowds to gather.
People will also have to take special care of groups living in outbreak hotspots like long-term care facilities and homeless shelters.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said seniors ages 70 and older who aren’t living in long-term care homes should self-isolate until a vaccine is found, which likely won’t happen for at least 12 months. But as the Atlantic pointed out, people have been deprived of physical touch that is essential for good mental health, and asking older people to self-isolate even longer may deepen their loneliness. Is it even ethical to establish a world order in which the elderly are trapped indoors?
Koch said it’s possible people will be allowed to visit their relatives living in care homes again soon—with caveats. Facilities could opt to only invite people who have tested negative for COVID-19 and are willing to wear face masks, gloves, and gowns, for example.
Craig Janes, the director of the University of Waterloo’s school of public health and health systems, said it will be reasonable to reopen work sites that can implement physical distancing strategies. Office buildings and construction sites can be adjusted so that workers don’t sit too close to one other.
In Taiwan, kids wear masks at school at all times except when they’re eating.
All businesses will have to either ensure physical distancing can take place on their premises or will have to implement screening measures at the door.
Governments could ask workers who can do their jobs remotely to continue to work from home until the virus is more contained, Janes said.
"If and when the WFH-ers do head back in, the office life they once knew will likely be gone, replaced by largely empty floors, with few if any meetings and elevator rides, and everyone in masks," VICE reported.
Cities can’t reopen without childcare
Businesses can’t expect to open unless governments plan to open daycares and schools too, Janes said. Otherwise, parents who want to return to work will have a hard time securing child care.
Janes suggested Canada could learn from Taiwan, one of the only countries in the world that kept schools open throughout the pandemic.
In Taiwan, kids wear masks at school at all times except when they’re eating. During lunch time, students eat behind protective barriers—dividers stacked on top of desks.
Parents are also expected to check and report the temperatures of their children to school officials every morning.
Quebec is mulling over a plan to reopen schools and daycares before the end of June in regions that haven’t been hit hard by the virus.
But the province’s premier, François Legault, said it will be a bad idea to send all students back to school in September because it could ignite a second wave of COVID-19 in Quebec.
New Zealand introduced the concept of a "bubble," which refers to the people we can interact with while honouring physical distancing. That typically refers to roommates or families living together. But if a single person lives alone and has a friend who also lives alone, they’re allowed to form a bubble.
If Canada implemented the bubble system, and let people grow their bubbles gradually, it could partly solve the childcare issue, Janes said.
"Open up that bubble and let a few people in. It could be home daycare," Janes said.
The bubble mentality could work for workplaces as well.
New Brunswick’s first phase of four hinges on the bubble concept. Now, people can choose a household to create a "two-family bubble" with. Both households can visit and interact with each other, but they cannot invite people from outside the bubble. Also, neighbours and co-workers can carpool again as long as the passenger sits in the backseat.
It’s unclear how public transit will be affected, especially since a full bus or subway car is effectively a mass gathering.
Reports show transit systems around the world have ground to a halt during the pandemic. In London, U.K., public transit is only servicing essential workers, while in Italy, ridership has decreased by 80 to 90 percent as people continue to isolate at home.
Experts say they’re worried public transit will struggle to rebound because it has taken such a financial hit during the pandemic, and people might be scared to get on crowded buses and trams even after the virus threat disappears.
There are of course risks involved with reopening the economy. With more movement and exposure, a second wave of the virus could attack communities and undo hard-fought progress, Janes said.
Fun will come back last
Major entertainment events that draw large crowds—sports, theatres, concerts—likely won’t come back for a long time.
"Those are the potential super spreading events we’d want to be cautious about," Janes said.
Pride festivals, Canada Day events, the Calgary Stampede, and Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival have already been cancelled this year.
But some organizations are conceptualizing ways to move events online. Toronto International Film Festival announced that it’s considering hosting a digital version of its annual festival this year. Even the NBA is trying to figure out how to reinstate the league with physical distancing measures.
While mass sporting events will likely remain on pause for the foreseeable future, people might be able to enjoy some recreational sports soon. Golf courses, parks, and camping grounds are already scheduled to reopen in Saskatchewan between May 15 and June 1.
People might still be scared
When businesses reopen, people might still hesitate to frequent public places, said Nelson.
Businesses in Toronto reopened quickly in the SARS aftermath, Nelson said, but people were still afraid of catching the illness, so many opted not to go out.
"So many restaurants suffered because of that," Nelson said, adding that businesses will likely see the effects of COVID-19 for years to come.
Many businesses will have to adjust to The After Time more gradually than others, he said. Universities, for example, are in a good position to move online courses back into the classroom. But distilleries that stopped producing alcohol so that they could produce hand sanitizer might need more time to get re-established. Plus, several businesses will have to rehire and onboard staff, as well as adjust to a supply chain that shrank during the pandemic—which will take time.
"This could also shift the way we look at work permanently," Nelson said.
"We’ve all worked from home for a month now and we’re somewhat productive; the shifting work world may be very changed by this," Nelson said
Ultimately, there is still a lot of unknown associated with the virus, so it’s hard to look too far into the future, Koch said. Researchers still need to figure out whether the virus mutates, how long people who have recovered from the virus stay immune, and how many strains exist.
When asked how long physical distancing will stay in place, Koch said there was only one answer: "We don’t know."
What we do know, is we’re in for the long haul before life gets back to normal, if it ever does.
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