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What message do leaders send when they break coronavirus rules?

When government leaders break physical-distancing rules, what message are they sending?
WATCH: When government leaders break physical-distancing rules, what message are they sending?

Social media lit up over the weekend after thousands of people gathered at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, appearing to ignore the province’s physical-distancing rules aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Government officials condemned the “dangerous” behaviour of people who flooded the popular downtown park on Saturday, saying they could cause a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Among them was Toronto Mayor John Tory, who visited the park to “try to determine why things were the way they were.” The mayor faced criticism after he was seen pulling off his face mask to talk to park-goers, and appearing to not follow the two-metre distance rule.

READ MORE: What is coronavirus contact tracing and how important is it as Canada reopens?

Tory later apologized for his behaviour and said he “fully intended to properly physically distance but it was very difficult to do.”

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“I wore a mask into the park but I failed to use it properly, another thing I’m disappointed about,” Tory said in his apology. “These were mistakes that I made and as a leader in this city, I know that I must set a better example going forward.”

But Tory isn’t the only Canadian leader to have reportedly flouted COVID-19 prevention guidelines.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire when he urged Canadians to stay home over Easter weekend, but crossed the provincial border from Ottawa into Quebec to visit his own family at Harrington Lake. Ontario Premier Doug Ford admitted two of his daughters — who do not live with him — came to his house for Mother’s Day, despite the province’s physical-distancing rules.

Elected officials defying health recommendations poses the question: What sort of messages are they sending to the public when they break the rules themselves?

Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario’s Ford encourages Trinity Bellwoods Park crowds to get tested
Coronavirus outbreak: Ontario’s Ford encourages Trinity Bellwoods Park crowds to get tested

“There’s a gap between attitude and behaviour,” said Kerry Bowman, a clinical ethicist and professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto.

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“And what that message really says is it’s more important what you say than what you do — which is not a good message in a pandemic.”

‘Mixed messaging’

Bowman says these types of “mixed messages” from leaders can cause a significant number of people to reconsider their own behaviour, possibly defying public health rules as a result.

While there is no excuse to deliberately ignore health guidelines and put people’s safety at risk, it’s important to acknowledge that what leaders do has an effect on people. If a politician says people should not leave town to visit their cottage, then does the opposite, it can downplay the severity of the pandemic in people’s minds, said Sarita Srivastava, an associate professor of sociology at Queen’s University.

READ MORE: Is it safe to see friends if we stay outside?

“Those mixed messages help to exploit that divide in which some people are taking it very seriously, and some people are genuinely convinced that it’s… overblown,” Srivastava said.

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Seeing a leader do something that seemingly goes against public health orders also adds to the level of confusion around pandemic guidelines, Bowman added.

The rules around physical distancing and what forms of socializing are and are not allowed hasn’t been consistently clear in all parts of the country, says Bowman. In Ontario, he says, the rules have been confusing — especially when it comes to outdoor activity.

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Several cities across Canada shut down playground structures and park facilities like tennis courts and benches earlier in the pandemic. Ontario reopened parts of parks in mid-May, but many facilities, including playgrounds, roofed accommodations and washrooms, remained closed.

Coronavirus outbreak: 85,103 confirmed cases in Canada, 6,453 confirmed deaths
Coronavirus outbreak: 85,103 confirmed cases in Canada, 6,453 confirmed deaths

People have been fined for breaking coronavirus physical distancing rules, including a family in Oakville, Ont., who received an $880 ticket in April for rollerblading in a parking lot. The man ticketed said he asked the bylaw officer what rules he had broken as the lot was reportedly empty.

Some leaders are doing a better job at communicating local rules during the pandemic, Bowman said, like B.C.’s medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who seems to be “a lot clearer” with her messages.

Clear messaging is key when it comes to educating the public, especially as rules loosen or change, Srivastava said. There’s a difference between intentionally knowing the rules and breaking them, and genuinely being unsure of what is permitted at this time.

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“We’re getting mixed messages: Go out and shop, and it’s OK as long as you wear your face mask,” she said. “But at the same time, everybody knows that as things open up, there’s going to be an increase in new infections.”

Clear leadership

If leaders want people to follow public health recommendations, they need to follow them themselves and uphold their societal responsibilities. When they don’t, it causes an “erosion of trust” between citizens and leaders, Bowman said.

READ MORE: Large Memorial Day crowds trigger coronavirus warnings in the U.S.

Canadians, especially those in provinces heavily hit by outbreaks, have “paid a very high price” throughout the pandemic, Bowman said.

“Our lives, some more than others, have been gutted economically and socially,” he said.

“The deal was always we needed to give our leadership space so that they could protect our hospitals, protect vulnerable people, upscale testing and contact tracing. And mostly they failed; they really haven’t done that.”

Srivastava says that the pandemic has just magnified social and racial inequalities across Canadians, including between politicians and average citizens. Shaming people for going outdoors does not address the underlying issues many citizens face, she said.

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“People who have higher rates of infection among racial groups are also people who are most likely to be on the front-lines, like front-line health care workers or delivery people,” she said.

The future of grocery shopping in the COVID-19 pandemic
The future of grocery shopping in the COVID-19 pandemic

“They’re also more likely, in the city, to be the people who don’t have huge backyards with pools, but are in more crowded living situations where they need to be in parks. That’s the kind of thing that’s not being properly addressed by saying, ‘Hey, why are you in the park?'”

Most people have been following guidelines well, Srivastava said, but there needs to be clear direction so that people can continue to navigate the pandemic effectively. She acknowledges that public health guidance is constantly changing as we learn more about the novel coronavirus, but we need to have ongoing conversations to make sure everyone is on the same page.

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“We need politicians — rather than continuing to tell us, ‘Don’t go outside, don’t visit your family’ — to actually provide some leadership and some guidance,” she said.

“For example, saying: ‘I know it’s really difficult for you not to see your family. Here’s what I’m doing to see my family. Here’s what I’m doing that’s safe. And here are the things that we’re doing as a government.'”

READ MORE: Lockdown 2.0? Case spikes could lead to more coronavirus restrictions

Bowman said as we continue months into the pandemic, governments need adequate plans in place to respond to more people going outdoors. Physical-distancing rules are important, but so is leadership.

“It’s a profoundly difficult situation, and I worry as we’re marching into summer now,” Bowman said.

“We’ve got to figure this out because we’re not going to sit in our living rooms all summer; we’ve got to get on top of this.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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.

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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. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.