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A security guard talks with people in line at a COVID-19 testing centre at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, on Nov. 23, 2020.

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

While Toronto endures a grim new lockdown, Ottawa’s restaurants offer indoor dining, people work out in gyms and socially distant customers shop for Christmas presents in stores. The COVID-19 pandemic worsens in Canada’s largest city, even as the situation steadily improves in the nation’s capital.

The reasons that Ottawa remains open and Toronto is forced to close offer a glimpse into the nature of the two cities, and how their differences shape the path of the pandemic.

By Nov. 25, Toronto had accumulated 1,349 cases per 100,000 people; the national capital’s figure was 881. The number of COVID-19 patients in Toronto hospitals has been increasing; in Ottawa, hospitalizations are steadily going down.

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In the spring, during the first wave of the pandemic, Ottawa was hit less severely than Toronto, a situation that is repeating itself in the second wave. Why is that?

Geography is one factor. Canada’s national capital has much lower population density than its financial capital. There are building height limits in the downtown, part of a half-hearted effort to protect the dominance of Parliament Hill in the cityscape. Once you leave the core, Ottawa sprawls into the surrounding farmland, from Orleans in the east through Nepean in the south to Kanata and beyond in the west.

Because public transit in the national capital region is mediocre on a good day, only 18 per cent of people took public transit to work before the pandemic struck, according to the 2016 census. For the Toronto census metropolitan area, the figure was 24 per cent.

“If you have a less dense population, the disease will not spread as quickly or as intensely,” says Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa. Urban sprawl and car culture may be inefficient and bad for the environment, but they protect against disease.

The federal government and tech sector dominate the Ottawa economy, which is one reason more people – about a third – have university degrees than in any other Canadian city. Toronto’s economy is more mixed, and includes more people working in low-paying jobs outside the home.

“Distance between people is important,” Vera Etches, Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, told CTV last week. “Some sectors of our economy work from home more easily.”

The culture of the two cities may also be a factor. Public servants may, by their very nature, comply more readily with government directives than workers in the private sector. “I can’t prove that, but there’s a sense that maybe Ottawans are better followers than Torontonians,” Prof. Deonandan said.

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The fact that Toronto Pearson Airport is a major airline hub and Ottawa International Airport isn’t could be a factor. Cities with hub airports tend to have higher infection rates, despite travel restrictions.

The capital is well known for its outdoors culture. In prepandemic days, people famously skated to work on the Rideau Canal during the winter. There are plenty of bike paths, and the 361 square kilometres of Gatineau Park are only four kilometres from Parliament Hill.

A population with greater access to such recreational activities is less at risk from the complications that can force people with COVID-19 into hospital.

This pandemic has brought home the greater health risks that lower-income people face in the time of COVID-19. Those who are forced to leave home and work in the community generally have lower incomes than those who can work on their computer at home.

People who live in crowded housing, with several generations under one roof, are also at greater risk. Many of these more vulnerable workers are immigrants, which explains why Peel, the region to the west of Toronto, is also in lockdown. Immigrants make up just more than half of the region’s population, according to the 2016 census. Immigrants make up about a quarter of Ottawa’s population.

The capital may be, as the late Allan Fotheringham called it, the town that fun forgot, but it is also a town filled with well-educated people in white-collar jobs who mostly live in suburbs, work from home, and drive cars. That may not be a very exciting description of a city, but in a pandemic, it’s the place you want to be.

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Canadian authorities are assessing COVID-19 vaccine candidates while trials are underway, speeding up any eventual approval for wide use. But science reporter Ivan Semeniuk says it’s likely high-risk people will be prioritized for receiving any vaccine first, with some possibly getting it as early as the first part of 2021. The Globe and Mail

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