Ontarians need ‘realistic’ guidance on seeing friends, relatives: expert Michael Talbot

Ontarians should be encouraged to see friends and relatives outdoors in the coming months, some health experts said Tuesday in stressing the need for realistic pandemic guidance following a winter of isolation.

Now that most of the province has emerged from the stay-at-home order imposed in January, it’s crucial to give residents safer options to socialize to help prevent another spike in COVID-19 infections, particularly in light of new, more contagious variants of the virus, some experts said.

“It’s really important now that we find realistic solutions for people, and what we know is that we by all means should avoid … that people now congregate inside,” said Dr. Peter Juni, an epidemiologist and director of the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table.

“People are social animals. We need something to balance ourselves mentally, socially, and psychologically, and so we will need to find a good way forward.”

A simple message _ that outdoor, distanced gatherings are safer, while any indoor gatherings with people from other households should be avoided _ should help people make decisions based on common sense, he said.

Juni said he felt the need to bring the issue to the science table after seeing photos of large crowds and lineups inside malls and big box stores over the weekend, which he said gave him “goosebumps.” The group will discuss possible recommendations to the province regarding messaging related to gatherings over the next few weeks, he said.

While being outdoors doesn’t mean there is zero risk of infection, that risk becomes “minimal” if people also follow distancing and masking guidelines, he said. By comparison, congregating indoors is “playing with fire,” he said.

Dr. Nitin Mohan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University, said switching the messaging to promote outdoor activities makes sense from a harm reduction standpoint.

“Folks have been indoors for quite some time. We know the mental health and other psychological issues that are going to be a result … of our lockdown and quarantine measures,” he said.

“So if folks can get outdoors and it’s safe to do so, I think it should be encouraged.”

There is a risk people may get used to seeing their loved ones when the weather is nice, and then break the rules when it’s too cold or snowy to meet outdoors, Mohan said.

“Are you comfortable saying, ‘hey we probably can’t see each other today, let’s wait until it gets warmer,’ or does it become sort of a lack of compliance where ‘hey, we’ve already seen each other outside, it’s no big deal to come inside for a quick cup of coffee,”’ he said.

“And that’s where it becomes problematic.”

People also have to be reasonable in terms of the kinds of gatherings they’re having, Mohan said, noting it won’t be safe to have “500 people in a backyard barbecue.”

Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor at Ryerson University, echoed that warning.

“In very general terms, ‘outdoors’ presents a huge reduction in risk, all other factors being unchanged. BUT this is NOT the time for throwing the masks away and getting into yelling at sports arenas or close-up BBQ parties,” he said in an email.

“Those will be super-spreader events for sure, especially with the new variants.”

Most of Ontario has returned to the government’s colour-coded system of pandemic restrictions after weeks under an order that required residents to stay home except for essential activities. The government still advises all residents to limit close contact to those in their household.

Restrictions regarding gatherings vary between the colour-coded zones, with the more stringent grey or lockdown zone prohibiting indoor gatherings and allowing outdoor ones of up to 10 people with distancing measures in place.

Regions in the green, or least restrictive, zone permit private gatherings of up to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, along with events of up to 50 people indoors and up to 100 outdoors, all with distancing measures in place.

Three regions — Toronto, Peel, and North Bay-Parry Sound — remain under the stay-at-home order that’s set to last until March 8.

When asked for comment on the possibility of updating guidelines on outdoor gatherings, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health said the province’s top doctor will continue to consult with local medical officers of health and experts, and review data, to advise the government on “appropriate and effective measures” needed to protect Ontarians.

Health officials in Toronto, meanwhile, said their guidance on socializing remains the same.

“Our advice at this time is still to try to maintain as much distance and to not interact with people with whom you don’t live,” the city’s top public health doctor, Dr. Eileen de Villa, said earlier this week.

“And if you have to be outside, to really keep your distance and to ensure that you’re wearing your mask as much as possible.”

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