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2020 COVID-19 Pandemic – Physical ↔ Distancing (Isn’t as Easy as It Sounds)

Tree that takes self-isolation very seriously, Ottawa, Experimental Farm, April 2020
Tree that takes self-isolation very seriously, Ottawa, Experimental Farm, April 2020

When the government first told Canadians to stay home and practice physical distancing, most of us said “duh.” “Duh” because of the coronavirus, thank you China and Europe for the preview. But also “duh” because in March, in Canada, staying home and not being particularly social is basically routine. You have to picture the country at this time of the year—the calendar claims it’s spring but there’s a 50% chance you’ll celebrate the “change” of seasons with blizzard, ice or snow.

Canadians are used to bunker down at home. This is how we get through winter. Oh, sure, tourist brochures tell the world locals enjoy the snow-blanketed great outdoors during the winter months and that we go dog sledding or bear watching every other weekend, but the truth is—I feel like I’m putting the final nail in the coffin for the tourism industry…—when it’s fucking cold, you stay home because it is fucking cold, regardless of the thickness of your Canada Goose jacket.

And so we stayed home. It wasn’t worth going out, anyway.

This lasted exactly a month. Shortly after Easter, the weather started to get warmer. Nothing crazy, just above 0 °C, but it’s a sure first sign of spring around here.

Hibernation ended when snow melted for good shortly after.

In Ontario (and in most of Canada, as far as I know) the core COVID-19 instructions go as follows: “people should avoid non-essential trips, work from home, cancel gatherings and stay at least two metres away from anyone they don’t live with.”

They were crystal clear for about three weeks. I mean, we were scared and rightly so.

But as time went by, we started to peek out of the house for a myriad of reason—low morale in the face of ongoing uncertainty, life-in-lockdown monotony, need for human connections or simply for practical reasons like grocery shopping or getting some fresh air.

Hopes for a quick end to the pandemic have vanished and life in “this is the cheat code to stay alive!” lockdown is starting to morph into “okay, let’s find ways to make this bearable on the longer run.”

This is when plenty of us discovered the “grey area.”

I first stepped into it three weeks ago when Mark and I were exploring the neighbourhood one evening and we walked past one of his friend’s house.

“Mark’s mommy!”

“Oh, hi Jacob! You can call me Juliette, you know.”

“Hi Mark’s mommy Juliette!”

Jacob’s mom was sitting in her car parked on the driveway and the two brothers were playing in the front yard.

Mark’s face lit up when he saw his friend.

My face lit up when I saw his mom. She’s one of the normal parents—no drama, no nonsense. I don’t know her that much but Jacob and Mark were born days apart and we pushed strollers together more than once when the babies wouldn’t sleep.

I could have said “hi!” and kept on walking but I didn’t. Jacob’s mom looked exhausted and she seemed eager to chat as well.

“Mark, stay on this side of the fence!”

“Guys, stay in the yard!”

The kids started chatting and so did we, except every two seconds we had to remind them to stay two metres apart. Then Jacob grabbed a teddy bear and threw it to Mark, who happily caught it and threw it back.

“No!” we both shouted a few seconds later when we realized that the teddy bear wasn’t being dipped into Purell between each throw.

“But we’re far apart!” the kids protested.

We sighed.

“Germs! You’re throwing a germy teddy bear!” Jacob’s mom tentatively explained.

This is when I realized it would be absolutely impossible to enforce physical distancing between kids. I’ve been trying to avoid walking past Jacob’s house with Mark ever since, but for how long? And it’s not just Jacob—every time we go out, we see and greet a bunch of kids he knows because they all go to the same district school.

As for me, well, I met friends twice this month. We took a walk together and kept our distance. Were we breaking the law? No idea. In a way, we obeyed the letter of the law but not the spirit—physical distancing was respected but I’m pretty sure seeing friends isn’t encouraged.

On April 15, an article titled “Physical distancing ‘loopholes’ need to stop, Ottawa health official says” was met with a backlash. People took offence at comments like “the problem with beer on the driveway or a chat over the fence is that it can turn into a parking lot or backyard party.” “Come on, we have some self-control!” residents claimed. The mayor later explained “that warning is not meant to discourage responsible socializing with neighbours, but rather to keep residents mindful about the risk of individual conversations escalating into small gatherings.”

I’m not the only one who stepped into the “fuck it, that’s fine” territory. I don’t see anyone doing anything reckless but the streets are full of people wandering around and there are clearly meetups—last time I checked, there were relatively few eight- or ten-people households in Canada.

Maybe it’s not such a terrible thing, after all. The shut-in lifestyle isn’t sustainable on the long term and we need to learn how to navigate a world with COVID-19 while keeping in mind regional and personal risk levels—step by step, carefully, life must go on at one point.

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