COVID-19: Montreal Back to Work – It doesn’t seem that it was so long ago that we were having an intense discussion about whether women wearing face coverings would be permitted to use public transit or take an oath of citizenship. However, countries like France that banned both the niqab and hijab in the public square have now made the wearing of non-medical grade masks mandatory for users of public transit. Restaurant owners are worried that if servers have to wear a mask it will kill the vibe of dining out and forget the pub crawl. Not that the Legault Government has given any clear indication of when restaurants and bars, a basic staple of social life for many people, will be allowed to reopen for seated service. As workers in so-called non-essential sectors return and the pros and cons of various safety measures are discussed, the question on everyone’s mind is, “What will the “New Normal” look like in a COVID-19 world?”
Some business owners and professionals are demanding that their clients wear a mask in order to receive in-person services while some commuters want all public transit users to cover up. As everyone scrambles to get back to work and to figure out the logistics of working in the new COVID-19 reality there are more questions than answers. What about dentists, dog groomers, nail and, hair salon employees, auto mechanics, landscapers, office workers, cashiers, and park monitors? Many retail employees are already shielded from the public behind plexiglass barriers. Should they also don masks and wear latex gloves to protect the public from them? What about bus drivers, ticket sellers, taxi drivers, and their customers, Uber members & drivers, and users of car-share services like Communauto or, private motorists for that matter? (Some hypervigilant motorists are wearing masks with their car windows closed.) So far, wearing a mask or rubber gloves isn’t obligatory except in a medical setting. There’s no doubt that many people are fearful of contracting COVID-19, but is the current fixation on PPE just a case of “mask hysteria”?
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, explains why she is now recommending the use of non-medical masks in situations where physical distance cannot be maintained.”For the spring and summer months, strict adherence to the public health basics of physical distancing, handwashing and cough etiquette must continue as the bare minimum,” she said. “In addition, where COVID-19 activity is occurring, the use of non-medical masks or face coverings is recommended as an added layer of protection when physical distancing is difficult to maintain. And staying home when sick is a must, always and everywhere.” . Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda clarified his position on face coverings recently when prompted by a journalist who asked him why he was against using them at the beginning of the pandemic. Arruda said he was never against the use of masks. “I said the mask in and of itself wasn’t enough,” he said. “People needed to learn two things: stay two meters apart — which is the most important — wash your hands and practice proper respiratory hygiene.”
Ontario has also been hit hard by the pandemic and is doling out similar advice. Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney told reporters at the province’s daily news briefing that the province is “recommending anyone traveling on public transit wear a face covering,” with exceptions for children under two-years-old, anyone who has trouble breathing, and anyone who would have trouble removing one.” It must be noted that Dr. Tam’s recommendation to wear a mask in certain situations is an advisory, not an edict. Ditto, for similar pronouncements by Dr. Arruda and other officials.
The overwhelming majority of deaths from COVID-19 in Canada have been concentrated in two provinces: Quebec and Ontario. Most of these have occurred in long-term care facilities where elderly residents typically have underlying conditions that put them at increased risk of contracting the potentially fatal disease. The situation has been so dire in pandemic-hit nursing homes that the Canadian Armed Forces were called in to shore up staffing shortages. The military has just published its report detailing horrific conditions in five of Ontario’s long-term care facilities. The scathing document alleging gross negligence and abuse has prompted calls for a judicial-lead inquiry raising the prospect of criminal charges. Quebec officials are bracing for the report of the armed forces on the situation in CHSLDs and there may be more disturbing reports coming out of Ontario.
Despite the evidence that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the frail elderly and chronically ill in both private-care and public healthcare facilities, public officials continue to err on the side of caution and are making vigorous efforts to stem community transmission. The overall infectious death rate from coronavirus in Canada is in fact extremely low. However, many people are still spooked by initial faulty projections of hundreds of thousands of deaths – projections that proved to be false but which influenced policy and perceptions, sparking panic, and lockdowns. Despite the best efforts of public health authorities to set the record straight now as restrictions begin to lift in order to restart the economy, many individuals are still gripped with fear. A new reality of “Safetyism” has taken hold and there are still many people who won’t go to public places or risk using public transit no matter what safety features are put in place.
Ridership on public transit is seriously depressed now that the COVID-19 unemployed are no longer traveling daily to and from the office towers, stores, and factories that keep the economy humming. Mayor Valérie Plante hasn’t given up on public transit yet. She had her game face on behind her own fashionable pink mask as she handed out masks to transit users at Langelier metro station the other day. The STM began distributing masks in the metro system Monday morning on May 25th, the day Montreal businesses officially reopened. The mayor thanked transit users who are choosing to cover their faces. “Do it for yourself, but especially for others,” she said. So far, Plante has resisted calls to compel transit users to wear a mask or face covering arguing that she doesn’t want to turn Montreal into a police state.
Some people just can’t deal with the dystopian visuals of masked strangers everywhere and will opt to stay at home longer. Those who opt back into public life will need to rely on other methods of transportation besides the public transit system. Cyclists will take to the bike paths en masse now that the nice weather is here but this isn’t a realistic option for most people. Many families have only one car and it doesn’t meet all of their needs. Some people don’t have a car or simply don’t drive. This raises the issue of what the new rules will be for all modes of transportation so that everyone can get to and from work and their appointments in relative safety. On May 25th rideshare and food delivery service Uber unveiled COVID-19 protocols requiring masks for drivers and passengers and placed limits on the numbers of passengers per vehicle with sanitation reminders to keep drivers and riders safe. The taxi industry is asking for clear guidelines on the transportation of people who have or might have COVID-19. Taxi drivers frequently pick up patients from hospitals and clinics – by definition, sick people.
Hailing a cab is a time-honoured practice, but not a safe one for either the driver or passengers in the current high-risk context. In Toronto, city officials have said they will work with taxi companies to develop COVID-19 protocols for taxi and rideshare vehicles. In the meantime, taxi customers are being advised to wear a mask, ride in the back, and open the windows.Carshare service Communauto is disinfecting on average 300 vehicles per day and distributing bottles of an alcohol-based sanitizer in vehicles to help members disinfect surfaces before and after use. All of its employees are working from home, except for fleet agents who have no contact with the public and are each equipped with an exclusive car. There is a curious contradiction to the social fallout from COVID-19. We’ve spent 60 years investing in government bureaucracy but the main solution of public authorities to the pandemic has been to send everybody home to work it out themselves. There’s been a marked disconnect between the public service announcements that depict fun at home with the family and the gathering storm outside. An unprecedented number of people have been put out of work. Many of these jobs will never come back. Although the federal government has been hemorrhaging money to compensate for the economic losses to Canadians during the pandemic, programs such as CERB, CEWS, and the OAS one-time-only top-up payment don’t cover everyone. Any public goodwill capital for short-term government relief is bound to run out when the full impact of the COVID-19 economic downturn sets in. Those who have been lucky enough to work from home have discovered that teleworking is feasible. Home entertainment, shopping locally, and drive-thru take out have become the new standard in just a few months. Many parents have discovered that it is possible to home school and they welcome more time with their children. They have inadvertently found the elusive life-work balance and some are in no hurry to send the kids back to school.
Another COVID-19 conundrum concerns healthcare itself. It has been almost impossible to see a doctor for anything except an emergency since the coronavirus outbreak while the CLSCs closed in the midst of the pandemic. It is obvious that there is a major problem in extended care and many people are anxious to bring their relatives back home. Enter private in-home nursing services, online medical consultants, and go-to pharmacists who have had to fill the void left by the public healthcare system. What’s the upshot? The economy will slowly rebuild – such is the nature of the marketplace. However, now that the vast majority of the citizenry has been catapulted back to a privatized 1950s suburban lifestyle, albeit with a 2020 “virtual” twist, where does this leave the public system? Given the seismic shift that has occurred in the way that people are currently organizing their lives, it will be interesting to see how things shape up after Labour Day weekend when some form of public gatherings resume and the “New Normal” is fully implemented.