The weather is warming, the days are getting longer and many Canadians may be feeling the urge to enjoy the outdoors after a winter cooped up amid the coronavirus pandemic — especially now that vaccines are starting to ramp up across the country.
But new COVID-19 variants are on the rise, which are more deadly and transmissible. The B.1.1.7 variant — first identified in the U.K. — has taken off. The P.1 variant, first detected in Brazil, is hitting western provinces particularly hard.
That variant was recently identified in a cluster in Whistler, B.C., prompting health authorities to shut down the ski resort. And Alberta Health is currently investigating a significant COVID-19 outbreak in the province relating to the P.1 variant.
So what does this mean for summer plans, weddings, travel and BBQ gatherings with friends and families outside?
“Come the end of spring, things should start looking good and get better every day,” Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said. “I still think that we’re on track for a very good looking Canada Day.”
But, there’s a caveat to that prediction. He said this summer depends on what Canada does in the next couple of months to help stop the spread of the virus.
Deonandan said as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in provinces like B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, more is needed in order to stop these new variants from spreading and taking over.
He suggested provinces shut down schools and initiate a “stay-at-home order” in order to get a hold of the rising cases, and then vaccinate as many people as possible.
“And then the sun will come up and should stay up,” he said. “The good news is that the variants in Canada are responding well to the vaccine.”
But Deonandan warned, failure to take strict measures now and also ramp up vaccinations, means a possible prolonged third wave or even threat of a fourth wave.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, agreed with Deonandan, noting that he believes the current third wave will start declining “noticeably” in May and peter out in June.
But, he added that’s contingent on whether Canada can stop COVID-19 from circulating.
If government and health officials are able to get a handle on the rising COVID-19 numbers, Furness believes Canadian will be in for a similar summer to the previous year, but with some caveats — like limiting outdoor gatherings, social distancing, mask-wearing and travel restrictions.
Wearing masks outside?
With the spread of new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 in Canada, some experts say there is a need to increase masking and offer better guidance for their use both indoors and outdoors.
“As these variants, which we know are more transmissible, become more prevalent in our communities, the importance of masking is going to become even more paramount,” Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room physician in Edmonton, Alta., previously told Global News.
While there is a lower risk outdoors of transmitting COVID-19 compared to indoors, Deonandan said people should wear masks when they are close to others. But other scenarios, such as playing soccer, running or walking with a friend, may not require you to mask up.
Although, it “does not hurt to wear a mask outside,” he argued that given the discomfort, potential for lack of compliance and anger surrounding it, constantly wearing a mask outdoors “may not be worth it.”
“I think if you’re outside and you’re keeping your distance and always moving, I don’t think you need a mask. However. If you’re going to be sitting in front of somebody for an extended period of time, like on a patio, the formula that we care about here is intensity multiplied by duration,” he explained.
So, if you’re face-to-face with a friend on a patio or standing still talking with a family member at an outdoor BBQ, this is a “high-intensity” encounter, and the longer you sit or stand there, the more chances of contracting COVID-19, Deonandan said.
In these scenarios, people should be wearing masks and practising social distancing outside, he added.
With Canadian health officials continuing to close and restrict large gatherings and venues, many engaged couples have had no choice but to delay their wedding plans. Some of the rescheduled dates land this summer.
The future of large gatherings is still uncertain, so it’s difficult to say if the wedding season will have to be postponed another year.
However, Deonandan believes Canadians may have a wedding season by August, especially if it’s outdoors.
Dr. Anna Banerji, associate professor at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine in Toronto, previously told Global News that because there is a lot of uncertainty around the pandemic and vaccination rollout, she would keep the plans small and flexible.
“To have a wedding very early, for example in the summer, like June, July, and especially large weddings, you’re at risk of having to postpone or cancel,” she said.
“I think most of the world is hoping that by the summertime, that COVID is much less because more people are going to be vaccinated. But no one really knows what it’s supposed to be like then.”
Banerji added that there may be rules around banquet facilities where only those vaccinated can come or the family may decide. Overall, she said there is a lot to take into consideration, like if people who are not vaccinated were to come to a wedding, there may be company vendors that will not want to serve them.
Deonandan believes although Canadians will most likely take summer vacations, they should be wary of flying outside the country — even if they are vaccinated.
“We may get our vaccine penetration in order here, but the rest of the world will not have caught up to wealthy countries. So travel will remain the biggest threat to the introduction of new variants,” he said.
A vaccine is not a suit of armour, he explained. Every vaccine has a failure rate. And that failure rate is enhanced when it happens in a high prevalence area.
“We should all continue wearing masks and keeping distance until the incidence rate comes down. Even a vaccinated person has a chance of acquiring the disease. If you’re travelling to places where the incidence rate is still high, then you are a risk to the returning population.”
— With files from Global News’ Madison Wong