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Ste. Catherine street empties out as the COVID-19 curfew takes effect in Montreal on Jan. 11, 2021.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Despite surging COVID-19 case numbers and strict government measures, Canadians engaged in riskier behaviour over the holidays than in the early days of the pandemic, according to a national survey published this week.

The rates at which people participated in social activities between Dec. 17 and Jan. 5 were higher than they were during the country’s first lockdowns in the spring, an Innovative Research Group online survey using a representative sample of 3,046 adults shows. Owing to the fact it was an online poll, the results have no margin of error.

While mask-wearing has become the norm, the report says other basic preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and keeping at least two metres away from others, are not being observed as much as they were in April. Although the poll is national, restrictions vary within provinces and municipalities; in Nova Scotia, for instance, households are still permitted to have up to 10 people gather indoors.

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During the December holidays – a period public-health experts warned could lead to a surge in COVID-19 infections attributed to family gatherings, and during which governments enacted strict lockdowns to curb infections – 35 per cent of people said they visited friends or family in their home at least once, a higher rate than during the early days of the pandemic, when just one in five people said they gathered indoors. (The indoor gathering rate peaked at the end of the summer, when 51 per cent of respondents said they visited others.)

IN-HOME VISITS

Share of people who have visited a friend/relative at home in past seven days

Per cent at least once

100%

Don’t

know

80

Never

Once

60

Twice

40

35%

3 times

20

4 times

5 times +

0

March 24-26

March 31-April 2

April 9-13

April 20-22

May 1-5

Sept. 5-13

Nov. 5-16

Nov. 19-Dec. 2

Dec. 17-Jan. 5

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: innovative research group

IN-HOME VISITS

Share of people who have visited a friend/relative at home in past seven days

Per cent at least once

100%

Don’t

know

80

Never

Once

60

Twice

40

35%

3 times

20

4 times

5 times +

0

March 24-26

March 31-April 2

April 9-13

April 20-22

May 1-5

Sept. 5-13

Nov. 5-16

Nov. 19-Dec. 2

Dec. 17-Jan. 5

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: innovative research group

IN-HOME VISITS

Share of people who have visited a friend/relative at home in past seven days

Per cent at least once

100%

Don’t

know

80

Never

Once

60

Twice

40

35%

3 times

20

4 times

5 times +

0

March 24-26

March 31-April 2

April 9-13

April 20-22

May 1-5

Sept. 5-13

Nov. 5-16

Nov. 19-Dec. 2

Dec. 17-Jan. 5

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: innovative research group

According to The Globe and Mail’s COVID-19 case tracker, Canada has registered 54,532 new cases and 1,014 deaths in the past seven days. Each day, the country has logged between 6,500 and 8,000 new cases, about four times the rates in April and May.

Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group, said this most recent survey is in sharp contrast to what his firm saw early in the pandemic. “We took this a lot more seriously in the spring than we’re taking it now in terms of our individual behaviours,” he said.

Activities identified by Innovative as moderate-risk – visiting others at home or playing host themselves – are also much higher than they were earlier in the pandemic. During the holidays, 44 per cent of people did that at least once, according to the data. At their lowest point in the spring, those numbers hovered between 24 and 26 per cent. (The survey did not look at the number of people congregating who otherwise live alone.)

Mr. Lyle warned that this trend isn’t simply about “a bunch of young guys out there doing crazy behaviours,” however. “What has changed is not the people at the extreme, but the people in the middle, who are taking incrementally more risk and being less safe when they do it.”

The survey also shows Canadians have become a bit more lax on some preventive measures. While 91 per cent of people said they wore a mask all or most of the time when they left the house, hand-washing and physical-distancing rates have declined slightly. In April, 68 per cent replied “all the time” when asked if they washed their hands frequently, compared with 61 per cent over the holidays. Rates of physical distancing have also decreased. While 72 per cent said in April that they always kept at least two metres from others while outside their house, by the holidays, only 58 per cent said they did so.

Counterintuitively, Mr. Lyle’s data show people are no less afraid of catching COVID-19. Over the holidays, 69 per cent of people said they were somewhat or very concerned about contracting the disease, the highest that figure has been since Innovative began tracking the information in early April.

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share of Canadians engaging in risky activities

Over the past seven days, how often have you done each of the following?

Per cent at least once

100%

Lowest risk

(ex. trip to store)

80

Modest risk

(ex. met friend/

relative outdoors)

60

Moderate risk

(ex. met friend/

relative in home)

40

More risk

(ex. small group

at home)

20

0

Most risk

(ex. attended

large gathering)

March 24-26

March 31-April 2

April 9-13

April 20-22

May 1-5

May 29-June 1

Sept. 5-13

Nov. 5-16

Nov. 19-Dec. 2

Dec. 17-Jan. 5

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: innovative research group

share of Canadians engaging in risky activities

Over the past seven days, how often have you done each of the following?

Per cent at least once

100%

Lowest risk

(ex. trip to store)

80

Modest risk

(ex. met friend/

relative outdoors)

60

Moderate risk

(ex. met friend/

relative in home)

40

More risk

(ex. small group

at home)

20

Most risk

(ex. attended

large gathering)

0

March 24-26

March 31-April 2

April 9-13

April 20-22

May 1-5

May 29-June 1

Sept. 5-13

Nov. 5-16

Nov. 19-Dec. 2

Dec. 17-Jan. 5

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: innovative research group

share of Canadians engaging in risky activities

Over the past seven days, how often have you done each of the following?

Per cent at least once

100%

Lowest risk

(ex. trip to store)

80

Modest risk

(ex. met friend/

relative outdoors)

60

Moderate risk

(ex. met friend/

relative in home)

40

More risk

(ex. small group

at home)

20

Most risk

(ex. attended

large gathering)

0

March 24-26

March 31-April 2

April 9-13

April 20-22

May 1-5

May 29-June 1

Sept. 5-13

Nov. 5-16

Nov. 19-Dec. 2

Dec. 17-Jan. 5

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: innovative research group

Mr. Lyle cautioned the survey doesn’t answer why risky behaviours are still so prevalent. He hopes to test a few theories in future surveys, including whether government messaging has become too complicated and whether people’s overall risk tolerance is now higher.

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, offered a few explanations for the increase in risky behaviour. For one, the colder weather has made outdoor socializing less attractive, she said.

But she also sees another reason: byzantine and occasionally contradictory government messaging around safety practices. “It’s very hard to keep up with it,” she said. “My job is COVID-19, and even I get confused sometimes.”

While Dr. Tuite said the survey’s figures for indoor visits could stand to be lower, some of its other findings make her optimistic, such as the “incredible” mask uptake and the fact the majority of people are not congregating indoors.

Given some people will likely continue to meet indoors and engage in risky behaviour, harm reduction – not strict adherence to government measures – should also become a larger focus for the government, Dr. Tuite said. For example, those meeting indoors could be taught to leave windows open or wear masks – ”as weird as that may feel,” she admits.

“I think a bit more compassion with messaging would go a long way,” she said.

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