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COVID-19 Outdoors: Toronto Health Officials See No Signs Of Rising Cases From Outdoor Contact

Torontonians were shamed for flocking to beaches and parks, but did they deserve it?

When Torontonians were spotted crowding beaches this past weekend, the public shaming followed. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the photos that came out of Cherry Beach looked more like South Beach, Florida.

“And you’ve seen what happened down in Florida,” said Ford during a Monday briefing. “There [were] 4,000 cases in one day the other day.”

This wasn’t the first time Ford had commented on preemptive large gatherings taking place in Toronto. Residents were previously criticized for gathering at Trinity Bellwoods, a large downtown park.

But in spite of condemnations from politicians and health officials who warned of increased transmission of COVID-19, Toronto Public Health (TPH) said, they have “not seen any evidence of higher rates of COVID-19 in those living in and near the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhoods or a cluster of cases that are linked to the recent large gatherings in this area.”

The reason for a lack of transmission is that COVID-19 is “mostly spread from close contact” with someone who already has it, said Dr. Vinita Dubey, an associate medical officer of health at TPH.

“While being outdoors is preferable compared to being indoors in preventing the spread of the virus,” she said. “We continue to advise the public to take precautions in all a public setting and spaces, both indoors and outdoors.”

The city’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Eileen De Villa also confirmed “there is less risk for COVID-19 to spread in outdoor settings” but warned that the virus continues to circulate the city.

“I encourage everyone to go outside to enjoy the nice weather and to do safely as we live with COVID-19,” she said in a statement.

It wasn’t just Ford who reacted to the massive crowds at Toronto beaches this weekend. Toronto Mayor John Tory responded to the footage of beachgoers with a call to dispatch more by-law officers in public spaces to enforce physical distancing bylaws.

But Toronto police said despite images that had Woodbine beach crowded with people, they didn’t issue any tickets for the breaking of social distancing.

“Officers were on scene and had no issues with the crowd complying with social distancing direction,” said police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. “There were several people warned about liquor infractions but that is all.”

Police did not respond to requests about tickets issued at Cherry Beach, but had confirmed earlier that no one was fined for social distancing bylaws when thousands gathered at Trinity Bellwoods Park, either.

Ontario has been taking the reopening process much slower than the rest of the country, because the province accounts for almost 39 per cent of the country’s population and continues to have around 200 new COVID-19 cases daily. Within the province’s reopening plan, Toronto’s reopening has been delayed and it’s one of the last places in North America still mostly shut down due to COVID-19.

The city has been cautious with reopening, because another surge of cases could lead it to shut down again. Ontario entered Stage 2 of reopening on June 12, allowing people to expand their social circles to 10 members. On Wednesday, patios reopened for business, as long as they they follow social distancing precautions.

In other large cities, like Vancouver, data shows that as people return to parks and other outdoor spaces, the province hasn’t seen cases rise either. In her briefing April 9, B.C.’s top doctor Bonnie Henry urged residents to spend time outdoors.

This graph from the BC Centre for Disease Control shows that cases did not spike with an increased frequency of people at outdoor parks.
BC Centre for Disease Control/HuffPost Canada Screenshot
This graph from the BC Centre for Disease Control shows that cases did not spike with an increased frequency of people at outdoor parks.

“The risk that somebody who is sick spreads this virus from coughing or sneezing outside and you walk by them very quickly, even when it is within six feet, that risk is negligible,” said Henry. “We always say ‘never say never’ in medicine, but the risk would be infinitesimally small if somebody walks by you, runs by you — even if they are within six feet.”

While the risk of transmission for COVID-19 has proven to be low in outdoor settings, health officials are still warning people not to get too lenient with health-safety measures — Canadians should still be vigilant about wearing masks, washing their hands, maintaining a six-feet distance from each other and making sure to quarantine in their homes if they feel sick.

We are making good progress in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” said De Villa. “We all have to keep doing our part as we continue moving forward.”

But if you’re healthy and safe, and green space is calling for you — there’s no reason why you can’t kick back at a park. Just make sure you’re packing a mask, gloves and sanitizer along with your sunscreen. And most importantly, keep your (10) friends close, but your enemies 6 feet away from you.

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