Across the country, communities are coming back to life — in different ways, at different times.
In Ontario, some businesses are reopening, crowds are gathering in Toronto parks, and officials are juggling how to curb risky behaviour while trying to lift COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place for weeks.
It’s a confusing time, but one thing is clear: regardless of what’s open or closed, risks still remain.
Ontario’s data shows the number of cases keeps rising, and without a proven treatment or successful vaccine, the novel coronavirus could remain a menace for months or years to come.
So what’s the safest way to go about our day-to-day lives during this pandemic, for however long it lasts?
You can approach this spectrum of risk like you would a traffic light: green means go for it, yellow means proceed with caution and red means stop.
And, whatever you’re doing, experts suggest erring on the side of caution to protect yourself and those around you.
The green zone is the safest possible setting, where you likely face the lowest risk of contracting COVID-19 or spreading it to others.
First and foremost, that’s spending time in your own home, with members of your own household. By now, this part should be common sense: the less often you leave, the less time you’re spending in other spots where you could pick up the virus.
But let’s face it, you can’t stay cooped up in your own place forever. And, for the sake of your physical and mental health, it’s important to get some fresh air and exercise.
That’s why experts we spoke to consider solitary outdoor activities among the safest, and worth pursuing on a regular basis — things like jogging, biking or hiking — either totally solo, or only with members of your household.
“If you’re not close to somebody and you’re outdoors, the risk is very, very low,” explains Craig Janes, director of the University of Waterloo’s school of public health and health systems.
Think of the yellow zone like you would a yellow light: proceed with caution.
We’re talking about outdoor gatherings with people who aren’t from your household, like hanging out with a few friends or family members in a backyard or park.
These activities come with a higher level of risk — so if you’re going to pursue any of them, you’ll want to be extra careful about building in safeguards like staying at least a couple of metres away from others, and keeping the gathering as small as possible. (In other words, don’t cram alongside thousands of people in an outdoor space like Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park.)
Still, “outside is better than inside,” stresses Dr. Dominik Mertz, an associate professor in the infectious disease division of McMaster University’s department of medicine.
That’s because outdoors you have natural ventilation, he explains, “which will disperse droplets and puts you at a much lower risk than if you are in an unventilated, small room.”
Laura Rosella, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, echoes that advice, saying the risk is much lower if you’re in an environment where it’s easy to practise physical distancing, either outside or in a very well-ventilated place.
“So saying hello to your neighbour across the street, or gathering in the backyard in small numbers, is definitely safer than having that in your house or other closed setting.”
It’s also best to avoid touching the same objects as others in these outdoor settings, given concerns over transmission through sharing surfaces — which means you might want to avoid a game of frisbee or sharing containers of food.
Red means stop and think — because these are high-risk settings you typically want to avoid.
This mainly means the kinds of bustling indoor spots still shuttered in Ontario: concert halls, bars, stadiums, restaurants, and places of worship, to name a few, since there’s a growing body of research showing big crowds in closed settings can fuel the spread of COVID-19.
“Any type of mass gatherings — hockey games, etcetera — will be off limits for quite a while,” says Mertz.
But even a dinner party at home with friends and family from outside your household falls into the same category, since you’re gathering in close quarters.
Of course, there are times when you need to go into busy indoor settings like a grocery store or pharmacy to pick up essential items. “If you do have to be in a place with a lot of people, wear a mask,” says Janes.
In addition to a face covering, you can also aim to make the trip quick, stay away from other people, avoid touching your face and wash your hands (or use sanitizer) frequently.