Ontario is allowing more areas to reopen this week, presenting residents in still-shuttered regions with a complex ethical quandary: Is it okay to drive out of town to get a haircut and enjoy a meal on a patio?
While Premier Doug Ford has said there’s nothing stopping people from leaving town, experts and public-health officials are urging people to be cautious to keep the number of new COVID-19 infections low.
“We need to continue to message to people that we’re in a new normal, not a return to the old normal,” said Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious diseases division at Queen’s University.
On Friday, Hamilton, Durham, Niagara and several other regions will join most other parts of Ontario in moving to Stage 2 of reopening, which allows for outdoor dining at restaurants, resumption of business at hair salons and barber shops, as well as for public swimming pools and other services to operate.
Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex remain in Stage 1 because of the continuing spread of COVID-19.
It would be easy for a Toronto resident to hop in the car and drive to a neighbouring region to patronize one of the newly reopened businesses, Dr. Evans said, but from a public-health perspective, it would be a good idea for people who live in areas with higher levels of COVID-19 to wait until their region gets the green light.
“It’s good that things are beginning to open up,” Dr. Evans said. “You should wait, if you’re living in specific areas, for that to happen if you’re not there yet.”
For people who plan on going outside their region anyway, it’s crucial to remember that COVID-19 continues to spread and that physical distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing are key to combatting transmission, he said.
Vinita Dubey, Toronto Public Health’s associate medical officer of health, said people need to “think twice” about non-essential trips, especially those who are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, such as the elderly or people with underlying conditions.
“It is best to stay within your neighbourhood if you can because we still don’t want people ending up in situations where they’re having close contact with others for a prolonged period of time,” Dr. Dubey said.
She added that people in Toronto have tested positive for COVID-19 after carpooling with others to work, so anyone planning a road trip with a group or hitching a ride with a friend across the city should keep that in mind.
“Being in a car for a long time is certainly a high-risk activity actually, because you’re in close contact with others,” Dr. Dubey said.
York Region, an area north of Toronto that includes the cities of Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Newmarket, will be allowed to move to Stage 2 on Friday. The region is next door not only to Toronto, but also to Peel Region, another COVID-19 hot spot where the provincial government has postponed a further reopening.
Karim Kurji, York’s medical officer of health, said life in York Region is so intertwined with Peel and Toronto that it wouldn’t be practical to ask residents from the neighbouring regions to stay away.
“The reality is that York Region residents have a lot of connections with Toronto already,” Dr. Kurji said. “We have a lot of social connections with Toronto. A lot of our employees come from Toronto and Peel.”
York’s business owners are “suffering,” Dr. Kurji added. “As long as [businesses] manage to keep the physical distancing in place and good hygiene habits in place, we have no concerns. In fact, we’re fine with [residents of Peel and Toronto] coming because I think our businesses have been hurting.”
Maya Surilov, who owns a hair salon in York Region, is looking forward to opening on Friday. But just across the street, Negah Ansari’s salon, which is in Toronto, must remain closed. The two businesses are on opposite sites of Steeles Avenue, the dividing line between the two regions.
Ms. Surilov, owner of Maya’s Place, says she is very happy she can reopen this week for the first time in three months, but she also feels sorry for hairdressers in Toronto.
“They’re all waiting to open. Some of them are really mad … which I don’t blame them,” she said.
Across the street, Ms. Ansari, who owns Hair Centre Chic on Hair, worries her regular customers will simply go across the street to the salon that’s open. But she’s optimistic they will return when she reopens.
“I hope they’re dedicated enough to stay loyal and true to their stylist,” she said.
Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health with Public Health Sudbury & Districts, said the province should create public-health messages to help people understand how to stay safe if they travel this summer.
Dr. Sutcliffe said she’s concerned about the possibility that residents who travel to Southern Ontario could be exposed to COVID-19. But it’s not realistic to expect everyone to stay home all summer, so she’s hoping people hear good advice on how to stay safe.
“It’s more like a harm reduction approach,” she said. “If you can’t [stay home], be really smart about it.”
With a report from Kelly Grant
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