For the first few months of the pandemic, parks were a prominent gathering spot where Ontarians chose to get out of the house.
But now as restrictions are loosened, crowds are swarming beaches across the province. A popular hangout spot for beachgoers in Cherry Creek turned into thousands of people celebrating the beach reopening, with little to no social distancing or use of face masks.
“You look at the pictures, it looked like South Beach, Florida. You see what happened down in Florida, there was 4,000 cases in one day the other day,” said Premier Doug Ford on Monday.
With summer weather in full swing and Ontarians spending the past three months in lockdown, Dr. Nadia Alam, a family physician and anesthetist in Georgetown, Ont., understands the urges people are feeling to reclaim their summer.
“It is human nature to want to get back to the normal you knew, but we can’t stop being vigilant, let down our guard because the pandemic hasn’t gone away,” said Dr. Nadia Alam.
While she’s spent the last few months on the frontline fighting against COVID-19, Dr. Alam wants to remind people that although the daily case numbers may be dwindling — we’re not out of the woods just yet.
“One part I’m frustrated because you have to walk before you can run, this is the kind of pandemic where moving too quickly can have unintended consequences,” she said.
Much like Ford, Dr. Alam pointed to the United States as an example of where they began relaxing too soon, followed by a major uptick in positive COVID-19 cases. While some people have good intentions like tennis star Novak Djokovic, who held matches across the Balkan Region to help lower-ranked players in need of funding, it quickly went sideways as Djokovic and at least three other players tested positive for COVID.
Cherry Beach wasn’t the only hotspot over the weekend as the town of South Bruce Peninsula council voted to close Sauble Beach after images surfaced online of thousands of visitors crowded together at the popular destination.
“Council resolved to close all of our town beaches. It was primarily a decision to close Sauble Beach but in doing so, we worried that we would push thousands onto our smaller beaches. We hope this closure will be temporary,” wrote mayor Janice Jackson on Facebook.
The province had given the area the go-ahead to open beaches as part of Stage 2 of reopening Ontario, but Jackson said the swell was more than expected and needed. The mayor indicated the large number of people visiting the beach were mostly from outside the area, mainly coming from the Greater Toronto Area.
“We know this won’t be a popular decision for many, and it was a very tough decision to make but we stand by it. I would prefer to take criticism for being too cautious than to ignore this problem and watch our community pay the price,” she wrote.
Toronto Mayor John Tory pointed to two major concerns emitting from the Cherry Beach fiasco, as he called out beachgoers for omitting safety recommendations and for littering in parks. Tory said staff at the beaches has been doubled and more cleanup crews will be on site.
“The bottom line is we shouldn’t have to double the staff, and have to have clean-up blitzes simply because some people have decided to have a big beach party during a big health emergency,” he said.
The city of Toronto just moved into Stage 2 as of June 24, and Tory admits while things are relaxing, the behaviour and attitude on display at Cherry Beach did not fall in line with the restrictions.
“The beach parties are not consistent with applicable and necessary health orders, we need people to show respect for the health of others,” he said.
Stay consistent, adapt to ‘new’ normal
Dr. Alam hopes Ontarians understand the sacrifices they’ve all made to get to this point, and that the changes in health behaviours like hand-washing, face masks and physical distancing are the reasons why the curve has begun to flatten.
“I want to say I understand the grief of losing our previous lives, what we used to have as normal, but things just aren’t the same, we need to come to grips with that,” she said.
While she thinks every person needs to take responsibility to do better, Dr. Alam is calling on political leaders to continue to be thoughtful about re-opening and providing messaging in unique ways.
“Our political leaders need to continue to highlight how necessary it is to be cautious in our approach to reopening and put [visible] suggestions in place,” said Dr. Alam.
When asked about visible suggestions, Dr. Alam pointed to re-arranged seating in public spaces, the socially-distanced circles at Trinity Bellwoods Park and expansion of streets to allow for more walking and cycling space.
“The circles certainly help, that kind of passive communication signals to people while we are trying to find a new normal, we just return to the status quo. You don’t just flock to the beach to find whatever space you can just squeeze in,” she said.
With clear evidence social distancing is effective, growing support for masks, and studies showing heat doesn’t affect the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Alam hopes people remember that we all need to take care of one another.
“If you can’t socially distance yourself, you need to wear a mask outside, it’s hot outside, it’s humid, but my mask will protect you, your mask protects me. We do this to keep one another safe,” said Dr. Alam. “You still have to watch out for those who are vulnerable, those who don’t expect to get sick.”