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Experts weigh in on public spaces, social distancing after weekend crowds at Toronto park

Coronavirus: How do we make public spaces safe during a pandemic?
WATCH ABOVE: How do we make public spaces safe during a pandemic? Morganne Campbell reports.

Medical experts are suggesting Toronto must rethink how it utilises public space as Ontario slowly reopens amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of people gathered at the city’s Trinity Bellwoods Park over the weekend, appearing to ignore physical-distancing rules and clustering in large groups.

READ MORE: ‘Selfish and dangerous’ — Officials disappointed after thousands crowd Toronto park

“Make the park spaces larger,” says Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of pediatrics and public health at the University of Toronto.

Banerji says we need to shift our focus and begin sheltering the most vulnerable people while encouraging those who are able to stay home and practise physical distancing where possible.

“If we can build the herd immunity amongst us while we keep the people who are vulnerable separate then they’re at less risk of ending up in the hospital or dying from COVID, so that’s a completely different way of thinking, but I think knowing what we know about the testing and the way this virus is spreading, I think it’s a different strategy and I hope other people consider this as a way of moving forward,” she says.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Thousands gather in Toronto park
Coronavirus outbreak: Thousands gather in Toronto park

The state of California is taking physical distancing in public spaces to a whole new level. In some parks, specifically in San Francisco, large white rings have appeared in the grass meant to encourage physical distancing.

“I think it’s good to divide things because people are not quite sure what six feet is,” Kathleen Campion, a Washington Square Park user, explains.

Residents who live near Trinity Bellwoods Park want the city to ensure large crowds will not gather in any park as Toronto heads into the summer season.

READ MORE: Mayor apologizes for ‘mistakes’ made during visit to crowded Toronto park

“The city can’t just throw up their hands and say they can’t control it because what is the point of half-measures? We’ll be opening and closing forever,” says Rochelle Jordan, a resident who lives near the park.

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Health officials are also concerned police and bylaw officers may need to intervene to ensure people adhere to distancing measures.

“The way we avoid the need to authoritarian hammer is for citizens to act responsibly so there would not be a need for police intervention if everyone took it upon themselves to understand that my behaviour affects you and your behaviours affect me. That should be the nature of a liberal democracy,” explains Dr. Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the School of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa.

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau addresses large crowds at Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau addresses large crowds at Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park

After 10 weeks of stay-at-home orders, combined with the arrival of nice weather, it’s no surprise that people want to get out. According to Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, many may be suffering from the “optimal arousal theory.”

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“We’ve been literally having a lot of quiet nights and a lot of quiet days for a very long time so I wouldn’t call it so much isolation fatigue as I would call it more a need for activity, a need for something that’s social predominantly,” Joordens explains.

“We’ve been yearning for this since isolation began.”

This doesn’t necessarily explain the behaviour of some at Trinity Bellwoods over the weekend, but it highlights the need for safe public spaces as the city maintains it’s focusing on “educating the public” during the pandemic.