Watching and reading the news this weekend three stories caused me a lot of worry. Consider the following three headlines:
- Physical distancing ‘loopholes’ need to stop, Ottawa health official says;
- Oakville, Ont., family hit with $880 ticket after going rollerblading; and
- Coronavirus: Man wears ‘social distancing machine’ to show Toronto sidewalks are ‘too narrow’
What do these three stories have in common? They are all examples of how new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists are working hard to erode the public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.
Like many of you I have spent the last month working from home. As the parent of three elementary school-aged kids, I have had to limit what my children are allowed to do while serving as parent and teacher during the day. Our family also includes a large, lovable dog who requires lots of exercise to remain sane, and this time has been hard on her as we no longer can take her to the park for the play she longs to enjoy.
Children are naturally social beings and keeping my kids away from their friends has been particularly hard. So we, like many, have taken to virtual communication as well as “block parties” during the day. This typically entails us chatting with the neighbors from the safety of the sidewalk and our drive-ways. The kids talking to their friends and sharing their hopes and plans even if they can’t share a hug or throw a ball together.
We know that Coronavirus is primarily transferred through aerosolized droplets that typically don’t travel more than 2 meters (as per the research Exposure to influenza virus aerosols during routine patient care) and in windy conditions can’t go close to that distance up-/cross-wind. Talking to my neighbours from across the street or over a fence, thus, represents a virtually zero risk option to keep community spirit high and provide our kids the socialization they need to grow into complete human beings.
Similarly, with all the parks closed there is a greater need for kids to have space on their lawns and sidewalks to burn off energy; get their Vitamin D; and simply be kids. With the schools and community centers closed, their empty parking lots provide an ideal location for our kids to ride their bikes or roller-blade with the understanding they keep their social distance from others.
This rather long intro brings me to the topic of my piece. How the actions of new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists can sap the communal goodwill necessary to maintain the effort to fight Coronavirus.
As a Chemist I remember the First Law of Thermodynamics which tells us that in a closed system when you ramp up the pressure the temperature rises in response. Our pressure release has been the ability to interact with our neighbours in a controlled and safe manner, entirely consistent with what we understand about the rules of Social Distancing during the age of Coronavirus.
H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time“. During this pandemic there seems to be a thread of Puritanism in some responses to the pandemic. There are some who have claimed that the pandemic is a test from god or our penance for our misdeeds. These new puritans appear to believe that if people are enjoying themselves then we aren’t really fighting the pandemic properly. The result is that instead of laying off on the pressure they want to make things harder.
Let’s look at the “loophole” from the first story:
If you have been enjoying a beer on your driveway with a friend or exchanging pleasantries with a neighbour over the garden fence, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health has a message for you.
Why does the Health Officer say we shouldn’t have these friendly exchanges?
The problem with beer on the driveway or a chat over the fence is that it can turn into a parking lot or backyard party, said Moloughney.
Even if you have been technically observing physical distancing guidelines, there are still dangers to these situations, including the fact that some people who have COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms.
We know that if families are separated sufficiently then communicating over a fence will pose no risk, so the only reasonable basis for this argument is a puritan desire to stop safe communication between neighbours. It appears as if the health officer is seeking to make fighting Coronavirus a harder thing not an easier one. As if there is some added virtue to increasing suffering during the time as a sign of piety.
The second story really gets my goat. As I noted, because our local school is closed and the gate is locked to stop cars getting in, the school parking lot represents a great place for my youngest daughter to learn to scooter while my older daughter learns to roller blade, all under the watchful eye of our son who ensures that they all follow the social distancing rules. To imagine that a petty bureaucrat would give tickets to families making use of this open public space simply infuriates me. These officers should be looking at ways to encourage safe, outdoor play not using their “power” to play petty bureaucratic games.
Similarly closing parks for fear that people will fail to social distance completely loses the thread. I’m told they closed the Lac Dubois Grasslands in Kamloops with its thousands of acres of hiking trails. Someone who can’t social distance in an open grassland is likely a greater risk in a city than in an open park. So closing that grassland park will likely do very little to protect the public but it will force more people to use smaller urban areas to get their exercise…imagining that closing parks will keep people indoors is simply magical thinking. We need to make more space available outside not less.
To complete the trifecta I want to point out the opportunists; the activists who are grafting their personal, pet projects onto the fight against Coronavirus. I can think of no better example than the urban activist who decided to create a “social distancing machine” to make his petty case.
Watching him walk into signs and light posts and complain that this is an indication we need better urban design to protect us from Coronavirus was simply maddening. Does he honestly believe that an urban tree will give him Coronavirus? Does he not imagine that an individual not wearing a “social distancing machine” might be able to walk on the other side of the tree to maintain correct social distancing?
I realize he claims that parts of his video were “exaggeration” but it was much more than that. Social distancing in the city is about courtesy and simply taking your time; waiting until the way is clear; or taking another route. It requires lots of goodwill. Something he lacks.
As for his suggestion that there was no space, look at the two pictures of him above and below. Both involved him walking in the exact middle of the sidewalk/crosswalk. In both cases there was lots of room for people to pass in a comfortable manner. The only reason he failed to get full social distancing was by insisting on walking in the exact middle and demanding space on either side. His major issue was that he was being intensely rude, nothing more, nothing less.
As a thought experiment consider this approach with a two-lane road. If I drive down the middle of a two-lane road then no one can go by in either direction. Does that mean the road is too narrow for movement in both directions? Of course not. If I drive in my lane then there will be lots of space for people going in the opposite direction in their lane. This gentleman is not really interested in protecting against Coronavirus, he is simply riding on the coat-tails of the pandemic to advance his personal views on urban design.
The reality of our fight against Coronavirus is that we all need to work together. This pandemic is not a biblical plague set upon us for our misdeeds and making people suffer needlessly to fight it will only reduce the general goodwill and unity of purpose necessary to fight this thing.
Our local leaders have to crack down on the worst instincts of their petty bureaucrats. Tell them to lighten up on enforcing rules about using public spaces, when doing so causes no harm. They need to overlook harmless rule-breaking that helps build community cohesion and failing that, the powers that be should relieve these petty tyrants of their duties. We also need to call out opportunists who are using this pandemic to advance their personal agendas.
The truth is that to beat this thing we we have to help each other find joy in a time of sorrow and we need to find little happy moments in a time of confinement. Spending time with our neighbours isn’t wrong and having a beer on my driveway hurts no one. Social distancing has a practical purpose, to limit the spread of the virus. The point is not to socially isolate people or force us all indoors. We are all in this for the long run and that means making the best of a bad situation. It also means fighting the activists, the new puritans and the petty bureaucrats working hard to erode the social license, community buy-in and public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.