Coronavirus in Toronto: What is social distancing?


Calls for people in areas affected by COVID-19 to practice social distancing have mounted in recent days.

However, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what social distancing actually entails, and who should be practicing it. Should you stay in your house unless you have to leave? What is a good enough reason? Can you have friends over? What about visiting a cafe? 

There is clarity on one thing: social distancing is one of our most powerful tools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially at this early stage of the outbreak.

We know that many people who contract the virus will either have mild symptoms or be asymptomatic. We also know that those people can still spread the virus, without ever realizing they’ve contracted it.

In some cases, social distancing practices have gone from suggestion to done deal: Sports leagues have shut down their seasons, which means huge crowds won’t be gathering to watch games. In Ontario, schools have been closed and several universities have moved classes online. Starting on Wednesday, Metrolinx will reduce service on GO trains, buses, and UP Express. And the federal government has advised Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel until final notice.

The basics of social distancing are straightforward: avoid public places, cancel gatherings, and restrict travel. But how, exactly, does one practice it? 

Avoid gatherings and public spaces

In Toronto, many businesses, organizations, and city services have policies in place to facilitate social distancing. Some movie theatres, restaurants, and bars are restricting hours or limiting capacity. The city itself has shut down operations in several of the facilities it runs including childcare centres, libraries, and public pools. All of these moves reduce (or eliminate) the number of people in any given space, which reduces the potential spread of COVID-19.

In general, avoid gatherings – the risk goes up with the size and crowdedness. Some people are limiting social interactions altogether, opting instead to stay home, chat with friends online or over the phone, and only go into public spaces when necessary. 

Work from home

Many workplaces are letting employees work from home, and it’s smart to take your employer up on that if possible. There are a lot of ways to make this an easier shift if you aren’t used to working out of your house: try to follow some kind of schedule, have a specific space set up for work (as in, not your couch), give yourself a specific quitting time so work doesn’t bleed into every aspect of your home life. 

Of course, not everybody is able to isolate themselves to the same degree. Many people are currently able to – or mandated to – work from home, though not every employer has put those policies in place. Essential workers are still on the job in person, and that includes not just healthcare workers but also cleaning staffers, maintenance workers, and other workers who often go unseen but keep everything going. 

Other people have a lot to lose financially via social distancing. Part-time and hourly workers often lack paid sick leave or compensation for forced closures of their workplaces. These workers help keep everyone safer when they follow social distancing and self-isolation best practices, often to their own financial detriment. 

Don’t travel

The federal government has advised no unnecessary travel outside the country and asked travellers returning from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days when they return to Canada. Many workplaces have cancelled travel for employees, and airlines and Via Rail are reducing their passenger capacities. When travelling within your city, walk or bike instead of using public transit as much as possible.

Travel contributes to the spread of coronavirus – if you are a carrier, you can spread it to not only the people near you where you live but also people in a completely different part of the country or world. The first cases of the virus in North America spread via travel, and restricting unnecessary travel now will keep it from spreading further within this country and to others around the world. 

While the government cannot force anybody to stay in Canada or their home province, it’s important to know that if you do leave right now, you are taking a significant risk. With airlines reducing flights and international flights routed to a few select airports within Canada, getting a plane back to the country is going to become increasingly difficult

Seek medical attention responsibly

If you are ill, even if it is very unlikely to be coronavirus, stay at home. Other illnesses like the seasonal flu and the common cold are also circulating and preventing their spread matters now too. 

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 – primarily fever, coughing, shortness of breath – or have been in contact with someone who has contracted the virus, you should move from social distancing to self-isolation. Contact your doctor, your public health facility, or Telehealth at 1-800-797-0000 in Ontario for further instructions. If you are experiencing severe shortness of breath, go to the emergency room of your nearest hospital. Otherwise, stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

Find ways to stay sane

Any freelancer or stay-at-home parent can tell you that there is such a thing as too much time at home. Find ways to stay sane that work for you. Some ideas:

  • Clean your house from top to bottom. This gets rid of germs, of course, but it’s just more pleasant to be at home when your space is orderly.
  • Give yourself a pop culture challenge. Maybe you want to watch those classic movies you never got to or introduce yourself to a new genre of music via streaming. Now is a great time to mix up your routine.
  • Pick a project. No time like the present to learn how to knit, organize your closets, or take up wood carving. YouTube is your friend here!
  • Learn something new. Fire up the Crash Course YouTube channel and learn about European history, sign up for an online course via Coursera or Khan Academy, or check out some e-books on a topic you don’t know much about. 
  • Don’t forget your kids. It can be tempting to just let your children soak up TV and YouTube – and if you are still working, you just have to find a way through the days. But try to give them some semblance of their usual routines by maintaining bedtimes and mealtimes, and pick projects for them too. They need structure, even if they pretend otherwise.

Flatten the curve

If you’re on Twitter you’ve probably seen multiple tweets with a graph extolling the importance of “flattening the curve.” 

Right now, the number of confirmed cases is low relative to the total population. The goal of social distancing is to prevent the number of cases from surging. That’s the steep part of the curve. If the cases start to increase significantly day over day, then the healthcare system could quickly become overwhelmed.

The result of that could be a situation like the one in Northern Italy, where a steep climb in new cases and deaths has led to the near shutdown of the country. Italy’s north has been hardest hit. Healthcare workers in the area have compared the situation to wartime, where difficult decisions have to be made about the best use of the insufficient supply of beds, ventilators, and medical personnel. 

It’s a tragic situation that nobody wants to see repeated in other countries. When it’s widely practiced, social distancing is believed to be good protection against such a scenario. We’ve already seen that restricting public gatherings, along with other measures like testing and isolation of people with symptoms, has been effective in South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China.

Following these guidelines may seem like ceding control of our lives to the threat of a virus. What it actually is is taking control – by putting social distancing measures in place now, we can slow the spread of coronavirus and mitigate the harm of an outbreak.

The best-case scenario is that this all looks like an over-reaction six months or a year from now. That will mean we avoided letting the situation escalate.