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Where Are We in the Pandemic? Ottawa, Four Months Later

Merivale Road, Ottawa, July 2020
Merivale Road, Ottawa, July 2020

When I flew back from Chile on March 20, people were panic buying toilet paper and all non-essential activities were being shut down. Schools were closing for “just a couple of weeks.” We were wondering if a shelter-in-place order was imminent and if we would be able to access necessities like food. Projections were grim and it was complete chaos in Europe.

Then life became what I refer to as the “tornado catch-22.” In the wake of Ottawa’s 2018 tornado, I realized we had been taking power for granted—“it’s okay, we have food in the fridge… shit, it won’t stay cold long!” During the early stage of the lockdown, it took me a while to adjust to the fact that non-essentials essentials were no longer an option. “Mommy, when can I get a haircut?” “We’ll go this week I pro—… oh, wait, no. It’s closed. I’ll buy scissors. Damn, grocery stores don’t sell them.”

And here we are, four months later. Europe is doing better but it’s now complete chaos in other parts of the world, including a few kilometres south of the border. No one knows if, when and how the pandemic will end.

Four months is nothing in a lifetime but time really dragged.

Yet, even though it seems that we’re still all stuck in the same sticky situation, some things did change.

So, what actually happened and what did not? How did things change?

I have yet to go back to a movie theatre, to the library and to the gym—some part of Ontario, including Ottawa, have only entered phase 3 on July 17 so reopening is a work in progress. What school could look like in September is still unknown.

As for the rest…

Merivale Road, Ottawa, July 2020
Merivale Road, Ottawa, July 2020

Food and grocery shopping

We never actually experienced food shortage. Supply chains are under strain but so far, so good, thanks to millions of underpaid workers from farms to forks. Shelves were often empty and some items became hard to find—blame logistics, shoppers stockpiling, etc.—but we’ve always had access to essentials and more. Something to keep in mind next time you feel like buying 40 cartons of eggs or 20 bags of flour.

Quantity limits per purchase were just a phase. I think the last time I saw a “X max per customer” sign was back in May. A friend recently told me she still deals with occasional limits in downtown supermarkets, but they aren’t a big issue.

On the other hand, store capacity limits are still enforced. It started right before Easter in Ottawa and the queues took me by surprise. I rarely have to wait more than a few minutes to enter supermarkets now, but queues can be discouragingly long and slow for less “common” stores, for instance LCBOs, clothing stores, etc. I can’t even imagine IKEA these days…

Large supermarket chains gradually resumed regular opening hours, closing at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., but many small businesses didn’t.

The way I shopped changed too. I’m more relaxed than I was from March to May. I remember making a conscious effort to avoid touching anything—I still don’t go around picking up every box and veggie but I have no problem checking expiry dates, nutritional values, etc. I used to stick to one store only to limit contacts but now I go wherever I need to go.

Cash is reluctantly accepted again but I almost always use my debit or credit card. It’s easier, especially when there’s a Plexiglas barrier between you and the cashier—just tap to pay.

Finally, my grocery bill is getting higher and higher for the same basic groceries. It sucks.

Hand sanitizer, surgical gloves and cleaning products

Hand sanitizer was completely out of stock everywhere until the end of May but it’s now fairly easy to find. The usual brand names—Purell, etc.—have been replaced by no-name alternatives and larger bottles. Price is about the same as before COVID, unless you’re buying supplies from a convenience store or gas station.

Rubbing alcohol used to be a common product in the first-aid section but shelves have been empty since February. Regular cleaning products, including the popular wet wipes, can be found easily again after a short panic-buy episod in March.

I rarely see people wearing surgical gloves anymore—or those who do are the type of people who wear a face shield, face mask, hat and gloves while driving around alone in the car.

Face masks

Unlike hand sanitizer, disposable face masks have never been commonly seen outside healthcare environments. The only place where you were encouraged to grab one for free was at the walk-in clinic—you know, this place where you spend hours in a waiting room with other sick people and hope to get a random doctor’s attention for two-to-five minutes.

As a result, few people were seen wearing masks during the (local) height of the pandemic. Those who did were clearly using their walk-in clinic masks—we had a handful too—but these disposable marks were eventually disposed of and this was the end of the story.

I first saw a box of 50 disposable face masks at Rexall around mid-May—sticker shock, it was $75. A few weeks later, a 50-piece box was around $40 at Walmart. The first palette was gone in hours but I see boxes or packs of three for sale here and there.

Since “pandemic” isn’t just a 2020 buzzword, people started favouring cloth masks.

The thing is, they’re still not widely available in Ottawa. When I ask around, people invariably got theirs from someone who know someone who know someone who makes them and the transaction took place in a parking lot somewhere.

I don’t have connexions to the cloth mask mafia but I was lucky to find a woman making them on the spot in Koreatown and selling them for $5. So far so good, although I suspect they won’t last months.

As of July 7, face masks are mandatory in all indoor public places in Ontario.

Travel restrictions within Canada

Quebec closed the border with Ontario but the restriction was lifted mid-May. Despite different reopening schedules and priorities, another border closure looks unlikely.

As of July 21, Canadians can freely travel to Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. without having to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Visitors to Nova Scotia, Yukon and Manitoba may be required to self-isolate, depending on which part of the country they’re travelling from. Travel is severely restricted to the territories.

Non-essential interprovincial travel is strongly discouraged and international borders remain closed to tourists.

How about you? What did or didn’t change four (or more) months later?

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