1 or 2 metres: Should Canada change its COVID-19 distancing guidelines?

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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, slightly different physical distancing guidelines have been enforced across the world.

At the federal level in Canada, the public health recommendation is to keep a distance of at least two metres (6.6 feet) from others. That advisement has been largely followed by the provinces.

But starting this week, Quebec’s government relaxed their rules, reducing the required distance between two people from different households to one metre — even indoors.

The two-metre rule, however, will remain in effect for activities such as singing and high-intensity exercise in gyms.

The change was made because of greater vaccination coverage and a decline in cases, Marie-Louise Harvey, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS), told Global News.

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However, some experts in Canada say changing physical distancing guidelines comes with an increased risk amid the spread of more transmissible variants of COVID-19 and with more than 50 per cent of the population still not fully vaccinated.

Without masking, “one metre is nothing,” said Horacio Bach, an infectious diseases expert at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

“If someone has (COVID-19) they will transfer directly to someone else. It’s not a safe distance,” he told Global News.

Bach said the two-metre rule that is being used in Canada as well as the United Kingdom was based on studies suggesting that most of the respiratory droplets released from an infected person would settle down without touching other people spaced at two metres. But it was still not 100 per cent foolproof, he said.

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Different distances

The World Health Organization has recommended keeping a minimum of one metre away from others during the COVID-19 pandemic, but physical-distancing guidelines vary slightly depending on which part of the world you’re in and under different settings.

In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has pegged physical distancing at six feet (1.8 metres).

This is different than the guidelines on distancing in U.S. schools, where students can now sit three feet apart in classrooms.

Numerous studies have found that people standing less than one metre away from an infected person were much more likely to catch the virus than those standing more than one metre away.

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While PHAC continues to recommend a physical distance of at least two metres, it urges unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people to keep their interactions brief and from the greatest distance possible.

“In general, if in-person interactions must take place among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals, they should be encouraged to interact from the greatest distance possible, and with other personal preventive practices (e.g., wearing a mask) in place for a layered approach,” Anna Maddison, a PHAC spokesperson, told Global News in an emailed statement.

Maddison said Quebec’s one-metre rule was of high risk for unvaccinated individuals from different households in indoor conditions.

“The risk increases if the setting is poorly ventilated, if individuals are interacting in close proximity, or if activities are occurring that involve singing, shouting, or heavy breathing,” she said.

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According to PHAC’s guidelines, fully vaccinated Canadians are no longer required to maintain physical distance when outside with small groups of people from multiple households — even if those people are unvaccinated.

No physical distancing is necessary when fully vaccinated Canadians gather indoors, but PHAC is still urging those Canadians to consider keeping two metres apart when it comes to indoor gatherings from multiple households with people who may be unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

What provinces are doing

With a sharp drop in coronavirus cases coupled by rising vaccination coverage, restrictions have eased across Canada.

On July 1, Alberta became the first province to lift nearly all public health measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, which means the mandatory two-metre social distancing requirement is no longer being enforced.

Saskatchewan followed suit on July 11, removing all public health orders, including province-wide masking and distancing.

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Under British Columbia’s Step 3 of its restart plan, limits are in place to ensure physical distancing of two metres is possible for events like indoor weddings.

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Starting Saturday, fully-vaccinated Manitobans will be allowed to return to movie theatres, museums and casinos under the province’s latest COVID-19 public health orders announced on Wednesday.

But the government of Manitoba is still advising its residents to maintain two metres of physical distancing except for brief exchanges where masks are used, or if non-permeable barriers are in place.

In Ontario, which will enter Stage 3 of its reopening plan on Friday, the two-metre rule also remains and the province is not currently reviewing its social distancing guidelines, Bill Campbell, a spokesperson at the Ontario Ministry of Health, said.

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Nova Scotia did not reduce its two-metre stipulation when it lifted more restrictions on Wednesday, but will “continue to closely monitor all restrictions as we look towards Phase 5 of our re-opening plan,” according to the Department of Health and Wellness.

Time to switch?

As for Quebec, the easing of restrictions comes with some advantages.

“It is more natural to keep a distance of one metre than of two metres,” said Harvey at MSSS.

“By relaxing this measure, people will be able to enjoy the summer season with less constraints and allow them to resume an almost normal rhythm of life.”

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Experts are torn on whether the distancing should be reduced across the country.

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Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist at the University of Montreal, said the two-metre recommendation was based on studies done early on in the pandemic, but now the situation was different.

“We have literally very few people among the entire population who still can be spreading the virus,” he told Global News.

Abrahamyan said the one-metre recommendation was “logical” and “practical” both from the safety as well as logistics standpoint, allowing schools, universities and work places to reopen easily.

However, Bach says it is “too premature” to make the switch at this stage in the pandemic, because “we don’t know yet what will happen.”

He said the presence of the more transmissible Delta variant, which is on track to become the dominant form of the virus in parts of the country, as well as the Lambda variant adds to the risks.

“We don’t know how long this virus will be here. It’s not going to disappear tomorrow.”

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