“If you haven't woken up to the second wave, this is your wake-up call” | The Coast Halifax

“If you haven't woken up to the second wave, this is your wake-up call”

UPDATED: Nova Scotia locks Halifax down in hopes of quickly beating back COVID-19’s second wave.

click to enlarge “If you haven't woken up to the second wave, this is your wake-up call”
Communications Nova Scotia
Top doc Robert Strang announcing a second wave of restrictions “much sooner than other provinces.”

Update December 4: Today top doc Strang announced that the restrictions described below are going to be in effect until at least Wednesday, December 16. When initially announced, the restriction period was for two weeks, ending at midnight December 9, unless extended. By making a one-week extension now, rather than waiting a few days until closer to the initial deadline, Stang said he hopes to “give people more clarity and certainty,” He also reminded Nova Scotians that the goal of beating back the current C19 outbreak has a better change of happening “the more we buckle down and stay tight right now.”

As sequels often do, COVID-19 Second Wave is sticking pretty close to the plot of COVID-19 First Wave. Just like in the original, after a few days of rising case numbers and growing tensions in the community, yesterday the no-nonsense government officials—played by premier Stephen McNeil and Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health Robert Strang, reprising their popular roles—announced strict lockdowns for Halifax, effecting countless masses. But there's a chance that we learned enough about the virus, and ourselves, in First Wave to beat it quickly this time around.

The province had 37 new cases of C19 Tuesday, all but two in Halifax. That's not just a major leap from 11 cases, which had been the the recent high, but is one of the highest daily totals Nova Scotia's ever had. Only four days in April, at the height of the first wave, were higher, with the peak of 55 cases on April 23. "If that isn't enough of a concern, I don't know what is," McNeil said at the start of the briefing. "If you haven't woken up to the second wave, this is your wake-up call."

During these past eight months in front of the camera in the government's downtown Halifax briefing room, Strang hasn't displayed a huge range of emotion. Gruff is his default setting, and it's not much of a stretch for him to get from there to grumpy or frustrated, depending on which basic anti-C19 steps people seem unwilling or unable to follow. Tuesday, however, he was borderline rousing, encouraging Nova Scotians to rise to the challenge of fighting the coronvirus better and faster than other places have done.

“I don’t want to scare people, but I want people to have a realistic picture of what we're facing.”

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"We're doing this much sooner than other provinces," he said about the serious steps Nova Scotia is taking to disrupt community spread, at a relatively early stage of the second wave. "We're putting tight restrictions on now. Doing it now gives us the best opportunity to be able to lift the restrictions as early as possible. It also puts us into a better place to have earlier community and economic recovery. The longer we let things go on, the harder and longer it will be to recover from it. So that is why we're acting now."

The second wave arrived in Canada's six western provinces in September, and rose steadily. But even now, when it is triple the height of the first wave, responses are lazy. Yesterday, when Nova Scotia locked Halifax down, British Columbia only just clarified that its new mask-wearing rule indeed applies to "many indoor public spaces," and Alberta brought in measures to close schools but leave bars and restaurants open.

Atlantic Canada and the North were practically immune to the second wave until November. It officially arrived here last Tuesday, when unpredictable community transmission of the disease was confirmed. Strang and McNeil are aiming to accomplish the rare feat of nipping an outbreak in the bud, which is complicated by the disease's two-week incubation period: Even if the whole province went into complete shutdown today, the disease has made enough inroads that new cases will keep coming for two weeks, severely testing public patience and faith in the health measures at the time citizen buy-in is needed most.

Calling C19 a "stealth agent" at the briefing, Strang said "I just want to make sure people understand the context. And they're not surprised when we still see high cases in the weekend." He promised we will get more cases in HRM and outside HRM, probably in hospitals and nursing homes, too. "We know that's going to happen," he said. "I don't want to scare people, but I want people to have a realistic picture of what we're facing."

Abandoning all signs of gruff, Strang even got empathetic. "I know the situation is causing a lot of fear and anxiety for people. And I understand that. But we all have tools at our hand that can actually—by all doing it together—we have the ability to control this.

"So turn your fear and anxiety around and say, 'what am I gonna do to actually bring a sense of control for myself, and a sense of control for my community around me.' For everybody in HRM, now is the time to go to work, go to school, do your essential shopping and go home. Stay close to home."

The bulk of the new restrictions and closures are specific to the Halifax Regional Municipality, where most of the second-wave cases are. However, the "stay close to home" message applies to the whole province, as part of the efforts designed to prevent the current outbreak from spreading both beyond Halifax and beyond the youngish age bracket of highly social patients it's primarily circulating in. 

"This isn't easy, it's not easy," said Strang. "For me, I have a very hard last few days. This weighs on me heavily. We're back to where we were in March and April. It's hard for everybody, and we're feeling—feeling that. But just because it's hard doesn't make it impossible."

On Monday, restrictions on gatherings in HRM came into effect that were supposed to last until December 21. Tuesday's new, more wide-ranging restrictions are theoretically in place only two weeks, from just after the stroke of midnight this Thursday, November 26, through midnight Wednesday, December 9. But they may be extended depending on the progress we, and the virus, make.

Most of the new measures apply to an area the province is calling "western and central HRM," from Hubbards to peninsular Halifax, Dartmouth to Porters Lake, Bedford and Sackville to Mount Eniacke, out to Fall River and past the airport up to Enfield and Elmsdale. (The official listing is here with a lot of place names and an unhelpful map.)

The restrictions coming into effect on Thursday for Halifax, as announced by the province with some additional Coast commentary, are:

  • The gathering limit in public is five people (or up to the number of members of an immediate family in a household). This is not exactly the five-person limit announced Friday that took effect Monday; the Friday version said explicitly "a household may have more than five members but they may only go outside the home in groups of five." The new version allows a six-person family to go outside together, without any drawing of straws to see who's left behind.

  • Restaurants and licenced establishments are closed for in-person dining, but may provide take-out or delivery. This move doesn't come as a surprise. In Strang's telling, the second-wave surge has been powered so far by a seemingly alien race of humanoids, ages 18 to 35 in Earth solar years, for whom "social activity is an important part of the way they live." Meaning they routinely go out in groups to eat and drink, often past 10 o'clock on school nights. Shutting down their food supply is designed to shut down that disease vector. Hopefully after all these months of practise, local restaurants and their customers will seamlessly shift to eating out rather than in. Also, hopefully Strang will one day be able to make social activity an important part of the way he lives.

  • Mandatory masking now applies to common areas of multi-unit residential buildings, such as apartment buildings and condos.

  • Malls and retail stores must restrict shoppers and staff to 25 percent or less of legal capacity. Strang says any store will know what its capacity is, based on the building code. More to the point, although he refrained from closing retailers down completely, he wants people to think twice before hitting the stores. "Crowded shopping spaces are one of the areas that are of significant concern," he said. Essential shopping is, well, essential, and is allowed. Shopping for Christmas presents and other holiday gifts in person is not essential, and should be avoided when we're actively trying to fight a pandemic, especially by people who live outside HRM. "If you were thinking you're coming to Halifax this weekend for Black Friday, please think again." In a needed nod to local businesses, which face a particularly scary future if a single two-week lockdown isn't enough to get control of the outbreak, Strang pointed out "there are online options that you can have delivered or you can do store pickup. I would certainly encourage people to take advantage of the many wonderful local Nova Scotian artists, artisans, craftspeople, et cetera that you can do online shopping with." Back off, Amazon.

  • Wineries, distilleries and breweries cannot hold tastings or in-person dining, and must follow retail rules in their stores (delivery and curbside pick-up allowed). Halifax loves beer delivery.

  • Organized sports, recreational, athletic, arts and cultural activities and faith-based activities are paused in HRM. Teams outside the restricted Halifax area can still play, but any travel has to be close to home; no teams can come into Halifax. "If you're a hockey team based in Halifax, there's no practices, no games," Strang said. "If you were planning to go to the tournament in Cape Breton this weekend, I'm sorry, but you're staying home." This rule applies as much to Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams like the Mooseheads as to teams at any level in any other sport, except for school sports. (After hearing some post-briefing confusion from parents, we've got a call in to the province to find out if school sports fall under this rule. Update pending.) Wednesday afternoon, Elwin Leroux from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (the unelected provincial body that replaced the school board in 2018) emailed parents about the new rules, and mentioned that "School sports can take place in a school but not among schools." Which sounds like practices and intra-squad games are allowed, but for at least the two weeks of restriction there won't be games between different schools in Halifax. A little later Wednesday afternoon, the province provided even more clarification: "Extracurricular activities that happen in a school, including sports, are permitted. However, there can be no interaction between or among different schools."

  • Profit and non-profit fitness and recreational facilities closed. That wording is from the official announcement; Strang named yoga studios and gyms during the webcast briefing just to be clear there aren't any loopholes. We're not sure why the distinction between profit and non-profit is needed—Strang is obviously not intending a co-operative spin studio or barter-based bouldering gym to stay open.

  • Libraries and museums are closed, including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Because Halifax Public Libraries is really good at Covid, after the briefing the system announced it is shutting down at noon Wednesday, instead of waiting until Thursday. This will apply to "all branches, with the exception of Sheet Harbour Public Library, for in-person services," says the HPL notice. "All branches will offer Curbside Pick-up service" during each library's regular hours, and book drops are open. And you can get still put books on hold to help you through the next two weeks. "Existing holds and new holds will be available for pick-up through Curbside Pick-up. No items that are currently on our hold shelves will expire before this coming weekend. All loan periods remain the same."  

  • The casino and First Nations gaming establishments are closed.

  • Staff, volunteers and designated caregivers at long-term facilities in HRM will undergo voluntary, bi-weekly testing. Testing will be phased-in starting Nov. 27. This one from the province isn't exactly a restriction, but it's part of the Tuesday changes specific to Halifax. Plus testing isn't exactly voluntary if everyone "will undergo" it, but preventing another devastating Northwood outbreak is a worthy goal for our pandemic sequel.

  • Another not-quite-a-restriction coming from the province is there will be "stronger enforcement of illegal gatherings" in HRM. If police find an illegal gathering—a house party with too many people, for instance—they used to be able to give the host a ticket for $1,000; now they can give every person in attendance a $1,000 ticket. And at the briefing Strang asked people to report suspicious activity. "Please call the non-emergency police line where you live. Police are very aware that they'll be getting these calls. They already are," he said. "Halifax police yesterday had 55 calls yesterday that they responded to."

The restrictions coming into effect on Thursday for all of Nova Scotia are:

  • To protect our most vulnerable, there will be no visitors except volunteers and designated caregivers to long-term care facilities and Adult Residential Centres and Regional Rehabilitation Centres licensed by the Department of Community Services.

  • No extracurricular activities between schools.

  • Sports teams are restricted to local or regional play only. Strang elaborated on this at the briefing, going well beyond athletics to make the general "stay close to home" point again: "We're not shutting down sports outside of HRM. But what we're saying is we're going to limit any travel to local travel. So if you're a hockey team in Bridgewater you can go and play in Liverpool, you can go and play in Yarmouth. But you certainly can't go to Truro, you certainly can't go to a tournament up in Cape Breton. Any sport-related travel has to be close to home. And certainly there can be no travel for any kind of athletic, any sports or for any other reason, a non-essential reason, into HRM." For at least the next two weeks, Halifax is saying farewell to the rest of Nova Scotia.

  • Nova Scotians are also asked to avoid non-essential travel to other Atlantic provinces. Which really means New Brunswick, after Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador stuck a pin in the Atlantic bubble Monday, when each province announced a two-week quarantine on east coast visitors. There was no talk at the briefing of Nova Scotia also putting a quarantine on travellers from other Atlantic provinces, as a friendly signal to warn them away from our outbreak. Maybe that's what the internet is for.

Things that are staying open in Halifax include barbers, hair salons, nail salons and estheticians, with Strang's proviso that "we're going back to exclude any procedures that involve the face and the client having to remove their mask." Hospitals and community based health-care providers are open. And crucially for so many people, schools, after-school programs and childcare are staying open.

"School-aged children are not where we're seeing the virus activity," said Strang. "Even the couple of school cases we've had, they have been exposed somewhere else. So the schools remain a safe environment."

“For everybody in HRM, now is the time to go to work, go to school, do your essential shopping and go home.”

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One of the 37 cases announced Tuesday was at the Northeast Kings Education Centre, over an hour from Halifax in Canning in the province's Western health zone, and the school is closed for the rest of the week. Still, Strang doubled down. "Keeping schools open as long, as much as possible is critically important. Being at school is important for the mental, physical health and development and socialization of our young people," he said. "I emphasize that at this point in time our schools remain safe, and we are not going to be closing schools other than in reaction to certain cases."

To these reassuring words, Strang added a caveat: "If we have to change that, we will." An important reminder we're only in the first phase of the second wave, unable to do much except stay close to home and wait to find out how our story ends.