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Keeping up social distancing could pose challenge as coronavirus pandemic wears on

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Though COVID-19 cases continue to rise in many parts of the country, some of the conversation surrounding the pandemic has shifted to the “new normal” — what the economy and daily life will look like after the sweeping restrictions put in place last month are gradually lifted.

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This new phase presents an additional challenge for governments and health officials — ensuring the progress made in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus isn’t reversed.

Officials have said that some restrictions on social contact could be in place for months in the absence of widespread immunity or an effective vaccine.

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Since last month, Canadians have been told to stay home as much as possible and keep two metres apart from others while in public.

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And by all appearances at least, most people are listening. An Ipsos poll found that 69 per cent of men and 78 per cent of women say they’re in quarantine or not leaving the house except for essential reasons.

READ MORE: A 2nd wave of COVID-19 is possible. Here’s what that means for Canada

Sustaining widespread compliance in social distancing guidelines — whatever form they may take in the future —  may not be as straightforward, however.

As the weather gets warmer, and if cases trend downward, it remains to be seen whether people will be tempted to let their guard down.

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It’s difficult to say whether frustration with being indoors or keeping physically apart from friends and family as the pandemic wears on will cause people to start flouting public health guidance, according to James Danckert, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

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“The short answer is yes, if social distancing recommendations persist for much longer — and, you know, the smart money is that they will — it becomes more and more challenging to adhere to those rules because we don’t like being restricted,” he said.

But if other jurisdictions lift their lockdowns too quickly — and prompt a second wave of the disease — that could prove a cautionary tale, he added.

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“I think if we watch those things carefully and see that opening up too early has serious consequences, then maybe we’ll stick to the rules,” he said.

Research after the SARS outbreak showed that boredom was one of the prime reasons people broke quarantine, Danckert said.

And Italians under lockdown during this pandemic have identified loss of freedom and feeling boredom as top concerns, according to a paper published last month, he added.

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Danckert, who is co-authoring an upcoming book called Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, defined being bored as an “aggressively dissatisfying experience” — more than just mere apathy.

“When we’re bored, we actually are wanting something to do, we’re wanting to engage in something that has purpose and meaning in our lives. But for whatever reason, we can’t find something that will satisfy that desire,” he said.

“And the big reason, the elephant in the room right now, is that we can’t find things to satisfy our desire because we’re locked down.”

READ MORE: Our mental health won’t be the same after coronavirus pandemic, experts say

It’s been three months since the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Canada.

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Since January, over 45,000 diagnoses have been made and more than 2,400 lives lost, with much of the tragedy playing out at long-term care facilities.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician and University of Toronto associate professor, said an uptick in COVID-19 cases as restrictions are lifted is inevitable.

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But he believes physical distancing measures will be an element of government strategies for lifting the lockdowns.

“The more people mingle, the more likely it’s going to be for this virus to be transmitted,” he told the Scott Thompson Show on Global News Radio 900 CHML earlier this week.

“So even though things are hopefully going to open up … in the near future, I really think we’re still going to see physical distancing measures integrated into this opening up,” he added.

“So, for example, you know, we’ll likely see the opening up of provincial parks and city parks, OK, but people still have to be a couple of metres apart.”

READ MORE: How New Brunswick’s plan to recover from COVID-19 works

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Such an approach is now in effect in New Brunswick. Outdoor spaces are open and the province has adopted a “household bubbles” model, where members of one residence can have face-to-face contact exclusively with members of one other house.

Saskatchewan and P.E.I., which have similarly experienced milder outbreaks relative to other provinces, have also announced plans to begin reopening in phases starting early next month.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday that the provinces and their health officers are collaborating with Ottawa on a shared set of guidelines for lifting restrictions.

“We have to be mindful that the economy and the realities of each province and territory are unique, so the timing and specific measures will be different across jurisdictions,” he said.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told reporters Thursday that mental health is a consideration in those talks.

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“We will be having to live in a new normal … with the virus. So we’re very in tune with the need to address psycho-social and mental health aspects as well.”

The federal government has made resources available for those seeking support for mental health and addictions.

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Danielle Rice, a Montreal psychotherapist and fellow at the Canadian Institute for Health Information, said the pandemic has been a “really tough time” for those suffering from mental health issues.

People are more likely to experience new mental health conditions or relapse when there’s a lack of daily schedule, reduced social contact, loss of employment and financial security, she said.

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“The pandemic is one of those situations where we’re now piling risk factors on top of one another,” she said.

Though there are ways to stay in touch virtually, prolonged isolation raises concerns about how to manage mental health conditions while maintaining “the physical distancing that we absolutely need to be doing,” she said.

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