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A man sits on a street patio outside a restaurant as people participating in the Emancipation Day March pass by, in Vancouver, on Aug. 1, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Earlier this week, B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, updated her public health guidelines for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said that as we head into fall, people needed to “pull back” and maintain “more space and distance” with others. Physical contact with people in a person’s “household bubble” was fine. And while it was okay to get “close” to those among a person’s “safe six friends,” physical contact with them would be off-limits.

As she spoke, I conjured the image of someone trying to stuff a genie back into a bottle.

As virus numbers begin to rise again in Canada and around the world, this is the challenge our public health and political leaders face: telling people that the relative taste of freedom they enjoyed over the summer is over. The virus is surging and as dangerous as ever.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows this. That’s why he devoted so much attention to the issue in both his government’s Speech from the Throne and in a later televised address to the nation. It’s also why the country’s top public health official, Dr. Theresa Tam, recently said we are at a critical juncture, the fate of which will depend on our personal behaviour. Meantime, Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is “preparing for the worst,” when it comes to an escalation in case numbers.

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People wearing face masks ride the teacups attraction at Playland amusement park at the Pacific National Exhibition, in Vancouver, on July 10, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Each of these people see what’s occurring around the world and know it could easily happen here. In Britain, virus numbers are now the highest they’ve been since last spring, when the pandemic struck the hardest. PM Boris Johnson is now talking about introducing new restrictions, and is pleading with the public to act responsibly. Good luck with that.

Variations on this theme are happening across Europe. In Spain, hospitals overwhelmed by the virus in the spring are once again filling up with sick and dying COVID patients.

The harsh reality is that we’re in for a few tough months – and, likely, quite a few of them. I doubt most people are prepared, mentally, for what lies ahead. Going back into lockdown mode is going to be exceedingly difficult. People haven’t been talking about “bubbles” for a few months now. There is a very strong likelihood that businesses (bars being the most obvious candidates) may once again have to close for a period of time – a reality alluded to in the Throne Speech. (The government will provide financial assistance to any operations impacted this way.)

The start of the school year has only compounded the situation. Parents and teachers are rightly freaked out by what’s going on and by all the conflicting messages.

This was driven home in Dr. Henry’s news conference. She was asked to address the fact that new B.C. guidelines suggest students stay home if they have a fever, chills and a cough, among other symptoms, but that it’s okay for them to head off to school if they have a sore throat, headache, fatigue or runny nose. Not long ago, the province’s health minister, Adrian Dix, was urging kids who were the slightest bit sick to stay home. “Those are things [where] parents need to make that decision,” Dr. Henry said.

So if parents are confused, who can blame them?

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A man and his son walk along the boardwalk as the beach at Oka provincial park re-opened on May 28, 2020 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

One teacher told me that keeping students two metres apart in her classroom of first- and second-graders is impossible; it’s like herding cats, she said. Small children crave closeness with their classmates. So she’s given up trying. Meanwhile, students from the local high school pass by my home every day in giant, maskless clusters. They may be keeping two metres apart in the classroom, but not outside it.

To make matters worse, COVID-19 testing capacity seems grossly limited and disorganized in many places. People are waiting in hours-long lineups, often for a test they don’t even need. And the stress associated with this situation is only going to grow, as flu season hits and an increasing number of people have symptoms they suspect could be the novel coronavirus.

In the spring, the pandemic was new. People were frightened because we understood so little about the invisible monster. We watched helplessly as the virus took its toll, especially among the elderly. We were scared into doing the right thing. But then we emerged from that darkness into the light of summer, and we loved and cherished the freedom it brought.

Which is why giving it up – which we’ll all have to do – will be so tough. But the alternative is much, much worse.

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