Canadians are still flocking to parks and businesses as country braces for second wave

TORONTO — Even though the back-to-school season has coincided with a steady rise in Canada’s active COVID-19 case count and fears that a second wave may soon be upon us, Canadians do not seem to be meaningfully adjusting their behaviour when it comes to leaving the house.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said Sunday that a lot of Canadians seem to be taking a “we can do whatever we want” approach to their life in recent weeks.

“It feels to me like a lot of people just threw up their hands and said ‘I’m tired of this. I’m hugging, I’m going out, I’m seeing friends,'” he told Sunday on CTV News Channel.

That feeling is backed up by data compiled by Google and Apple, which shows that Canadians are spending more time in parks and at businesses than they were even in the first half of the summer, when the country first emerged from its various pandemic-imposed lockdowns.

Google bases its public mobility reports on information gleaned from users of its services who allow the company to keep track of the destinations they visit.

According to its most recent report for Canada, dated Sept. 11, Canadians are spending 151 per cent more time in parks than they were before the pandemic began.

This can be partially explained by the calendar; of course a park will be busier in September than it was in February. More telling, though, is that based on Google’s data, park usage has steadily increased over the past few months – from 80 per cent above the baseline level in early June to 140 per cent in mid-July to 150 per cent on Sept. 11.

SPENDING LESS TIME AT HOME

Also increasing has been Canadians’ activity in retail and recreation settings – what Google terms “places like restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries, and movie theatres.”

At the height of the lockdown, in early April, activity at these establishments was as much as 80 per cent below Google’s pre-pandemic baseline. That number has slowly crept back up ever since, even surpassing it on Labour Day weekend before settling in for a longer stay just below the baseline.

Labour Day weekend also represents a peak in Apple’s mass-collected mobility trends report for Canada. Apple found that requests made for driving directions were 88 per cent higher on Sept. 4 than they were on Jan. 13 (their pre-pandemic baseline), while requests for walking directions were up by 80 per cent. Both numbers were at their highest points in 2020. (Requests for public transit directions were about two-thirds of their pre-pandemic levels, or about four times what they were at the height of the pandemic.)

Time spent in grocery stores and pharmacies has been slightly above Google’s baseline for the past month, suggesting Canadians may be doing more supermarket shopping to make up for the decreasing number of meals eaten out.

The amount of time spent at home, meanwhile, has fallen from 20 per cent in early May to 10 per cent in mid-July to eight per cent on Sept. 11.

Taken together, all of this implies Canadians feel safer leaving their homes now than they did not only early on in the pandemic, but also for most of the summer.

That would certainly make sense if the novel coronavirus was still slowing its spread across Canada – but aside from Atlantic Canada and the territories, that’s hardly been the case.

Canada’s active case count has been rising since early August and is more than double what it was one month ago, according to a CTV News tally. Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have all begun to re-enact some of the restrictions lifted earlier in the summer. All four provinces show similar patterns in the Google data, with their residents spending less time at home and more time out in public than they were even a month or two ago.

“We know what to do; we just aren’t necessarily doing it as well as we could,” Dr. Brian Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said Sunday on CTV News Channel.

“Certain individuals are making decisions … not to follow all of the public health recommendations, and this leads to an increase in cases.”

IS IT QUARANTINE FATIGUE?

Because of the increasing COVID-19 diagnosis numbers and rolling back of reopenings, there is a rising belief that Canada is on the precipice of a second wave of the pandemic.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told CTV News Channel on Sunday that she believes “some form of a second wave” is already underway in Ontario and Quebec.

“We don’t know yet if it’s going to be a big wave or one of those smaller waves that we can control. That really, really depends on how people manage themselves,” she said.

Dr. Theresa Tam said this week that “the time to act is now,” noting that the daily new case numbers more accurately reflect how society was responding to the virus two weeks ago than how it is responding today.

Of course, the rising numbers do not come as a surprise to Canada’s chief public health officer. She warned in July that Canada could see a “backslide” if too many Canadians continued to ignore public health advice, and cautioned in August that the fall would be a “period of challenge” due to cooling weather and the back-to-school period.

On the surface, something doesn’t add up. The warnings from authorities have been constant and consistent, and are starting to come true – and yet Canadians are still spending more time in public, where contact with the virus is more likely.

One possible explanation is that quarantine fatigue has set in.

Also known as pandemic fatigue, response fatigue and many other terms, quarantine fatigue is essentially the idea that citizens are tired of the pandemic and no longer take the necessary precautions to stop it.

This is why “we can’t let our guard down” is such a common refrain from political and medical leaders – both in Europe, where the World Health Organization is now warning about quarantine fatigue as cases skyrocket, and in Canada, where authorities hope to avoid the same scenario.

Barrett said that Canadians “really need to take to heart” the advice from public health leaders, spending less time outside the home and keeping their social circles to a small number.

“If people are able to do the things that have already been suggested, we may be able to keep a handle on things,” she said.

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