National Post (Latest Edition)
We’ve made huge progress
This has not been a banner year for optimists, or indeed for anyone other than the most joyful pessimists. The experts who insisted a second wave of COVID- 19 infections was inevitable are being proved right: As of Monday, Ontario’s seven- day rolling average new- case count ( 29 cases per million) was well within sight of the previous peak ( 39). Quebec is still far below its previous peak of 131 cases per million, but at 73, it’s also doing far worse than Ontario or any other province, including those who are only now peaking for the first time.
So unwelcome is optimism in the current climate that even to look on the bright side is to risk being accused of “denialism.” But the situation in April and May was incomparably bleaker than it is now. There is no evidence to suggest it will ever be that bleak again. There are 128 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Ontario, including 29 in intensive care units.
The last time Ontario saw this rate of new cases, there were eight times as many people in hospital, 13 times as many in ICUS. Canada’s seven- day daily average COVID-19 death count peaked on May 6, at 176. It’s currently at seven.
We know more about the virus. We are better at fighting it. Younger and more robust bodies are contracting it — and more importantly, older and more vulnerable bodies are not. In the four weeks beginning April 1, 15 per cent of new cases reported in Ontario were among people in their 80s, and 11 per cent among people in their 90s. In the four weeks beginning Aug. 26, it was 1.6 and 0.6 per cent, respectively.
The non-lethal longterm effects of COVID-19, including on younger patients, will be a subject of study for many years. But however serious they are, they present a very different problem than the one we had in April and May, when Ontario and Quebec had entirely lost control of the situation in their long- term care homes. They needed everyone inside because they couldn’t stop people from dying by the score even as it stood, never mind what might happen next. It was an open question whether hospitals could keep up.
Blessed ly, that is no longer the case. As such, at this point, it is much more defensible to return the question of what to do and what not to do, of how much risk is tolerable, to individuals. The case for banning certain activities and shuttering certain businesses is much weaker. Yet it is being made as loudly as ever. Many in Ontario are demanding at least a return to Phase 2 of reopening, which would mean no indoor dining — which in a few weeks, at the most, would mean no dining, period.
Restaurants present a good example of individual choice, individual risk- assessment, in action. It stands to reason that the chance of some miracle droplet finding its way from a stranger into one of your head holes is greater while noshing indoors instead of out. Equally, however, it stands to reason that a lone diner, or a married couple, eating quietly indoors at a well- spaced table at a properly run restaurant is a much smaller risk to the overall infection rate than eight people who live separately laughing it up, maybe singing the odd sea shanty, out on the patio.
The case for closing down indoor dining in Ontario is now partially informed by four restaurants in Toronto’s woefully misnamed Entertainment District that were shut down on Friday for alleged infractions as shockingly basic as serving food buffet- style and pressuring staff members to work while sick. “Fairness” isn’t a reasonable or attainable goal in antivirus warfare, but it’s ludicrously unfair others should suffer for that.
By design, my limited indoor dining experiences ( all solo) have been at places where the spacing is wide, the windows are open, all reasonable and required safety precautions are conspicuously in evidence — and that in any case are almost totally empty. ( I’m not sure why some of them bother opening, honestly.) The owners and employees, who have done everything asked of them and more, are desperate to stay afloat in a post- CERB world that the local newspaper says will leave “almost three million Canadians … worse off.” At this point, after all the progress they have made, those people deserve a voice.
I’m not saying “go out and eat.” If your “social bubbles” are maxed out, and include teachers or schoolchildren whose bubbles are necessarily much larger ( and whose own practices you have no insight into), it might make sense to shelter in place. But there are other people. There are people who live alone, who have no brothers or sisters or first cousins, whose much-reduced social life has been conducted entirely outdoors at a very safe distance except for six brief visits inside three personal residences, two of which were one- offs and one of which was just to use the bathroom.
That’s me. I’m fine. But a lot of other people aren’t fine. After six months of this, with no vaccine in sight and staring down four- plus months of pitch- black winter, we need to accept the partial but hugely significant victories we have achieved. And we need to reward the Canadians who sacrificed to achieve them with some guarantee of a return to normal life, should they wish to make use of it.