There aren’t many things Canadians can responsibly do outside the home as the novel coronavirus spreads across the country.
But for people who want to go for walks outside as spring unfolds, or give cooped-up children some fresh air and exercise, Canada’s chief public health officer had good news last week: it’s OK to go outside for walk if you remain two metres away from others at all times.
Health Canada spells it out in more detail. If you haven’t been diagnosed with coronavirus, and if you don’t have symptoms, and if you haven’t been outside the country in the last 14 days, then yes, you can go for walks outside, if you stay the required 2 m from other people and don’t touch surfaces that other people have touched.
The problem, though, is governments across Canada are cutting off access to outdoor space in a way that makes it hard to get outside while staying away from other people.
On the weekend, a woman was fined $700 for using Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, contrary to Nova Scotia’s emergency measures act. Nova Scotia has closed all parks and beaches.
At times, though, local officials seemed as confused as anyone else about what was allowed and not allowed.
In Ontario, several conservation authorities, which run large park areas in the province, closed them to the public this week. Hamilton’s closed last Wednesday, threatening violators with trespassing charges. Niagara’s followed on Thursday, while Halton’s closed on March 21.
The closing of the conservation areas was one factor in the Bruce Trail Conservancy’s decision to ask people not to use the trail, explains CEO Michael McDonald.
“Now that all the conservation areas, national parks and provincial parks have closed access to natural lands, folks are seeking out new places to interact with nature. That’s creating new hot spots (on the trail).”
Because of its size and complexity, closing the trail isn’t practical, McDonald says. Parts of it are narrow enough that people coming in opposite directions have to pass each other closely.
“Outdoor walks are fine, but what happens with accessing the Bruce Trail is that most folks will end up having to do it via car or via transit. A lot of parking lots people don’t have access to right now because conservation areas are closed, so that’s creating parking hazards and putting people at risk.”
Another issue is that the Bruce Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that runs the trail, doesn’t own the whole thing. Parts of it are in conservation areas or parks that are closed, he says.
Cities have shut down aspects of their local park systems. Toronto stopped short of completely closing its parks, but closed “amenities” such as parking lots. Brampton closed all its parks, though walking trails are still open.
On Monday, Ontario closed outdoor amenities like playgrounds and sports fields, but left green spaces like trails open.
That wasn’t much help to people who wanted to use Toronto’s sprawling Rouge National Urban Park, one of the easiest places in the region to get outside while practising social distancing.
“At Rouge National Urban Park, all visitor services remain suspended and all visitor facilities remain closed,” Parks Canada spokesperson Megan Damini wrote in an email. “This means that all parking lots, washrooms and day-use facilities are closed until further notice.”
“While access to the trails is still physically possible throughout Rouge National Urban Park, Parks Canada discourages Canadians from visiting as most parking lots will be closed and locked. Anyone considering a visit to Rouge National Urban Park, at this time, should cancel their plans.”
She did not respond to a question about whether the closure of large parks makes social distancing more difficult.
On Monday, a sign at the park told visitors not to use it, but that if they went ahead anyway, to practise social distancing.
“Please go outside if you can,” public health expert Asaf Bitton told the New Yorker’s readers earlier this month. “Please take walks.”
Bitton, a doctor, is in charge of a lab that’s run by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard’s school of public health.
“The key thing is that you are going to want to go outside, and I am concerned that people are misconstruing social distancing as a recommendation to not get fresh air,” he said. “And I don’t think that is healthy for people.”
Much like Tam, he cautioned that people should only interact with people from their “home unit,” keep their distance from others, and not touch surfaces like park benches.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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