Outdoor visits low-risk if small and at a distance, says Ottawa Public Health

Officials seem to walk back from Tuesday’s guidance not to leave home

Laura Glowacki · CBC News · 

Can I talk with my neighbour from a distance? Ottawa Public Health says yes

Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, said speaking with neighbours from a distance of at least two metres is alright, though residents should treat “each interaction with another person as a potential risk for transmission.” 1:055 comments

A day after Ottawa Public Health underscored the importance of avoiding physical distancing ‘loopholes’, the city and health officials are loosening up when it comes to outdoor visits.

During a teleconference on Wednesday, Vera Etches, medical officer of health for Ottawa Public Health, said talking to a neighbour over a fence is indeed ok, if the parties stay two metres apart.

“As long as you’re maintaining the two-metre distance from your neighbour, you’re doing your part to reduce the transmission of COVID-19,” she said.

“People can and can definitely say hi. Check in with your neighbour. That’s important.”

On Tuesday, associate medical officer of health Brent Moloughney indicated beers with neighbours on a driveway or visits with friends outside, even if the parties are at a safe distance, are not in line with Ottawa Public Health recommendations. He described such visits as “loopholes” in physical distancing rules. 

Ottawa Public Health’s main message is to stay home and limit in-person interactions to people in your household, said Moloughney.

When asked whether two-metre visits outside where a fence is not involved are okay, Etches said Ottawa Public Health’s guidance is keep your distance and don’t gather. 

“We know that sometimes if people stop — where there is not a fence — and they are there talking and then others come and stop and it can turn into a gathering,” she said.

A woman passes a bank window adorned with the message “stay safe” during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

In many cases people do not show symptoms of COVID-19 for days before they end up testing positive, she noted.

“That’s why we need to continue to treat each interaction with another person as a potential risk for transmission.”

Mayor gets a lot of ‘feedback’ on loopholes

Mayor Jim Watson said his office received “a lot of feedback” after Moloughney’s comments about loopholes on Tuesday.

“I think there was perhaps some misinterpretation yesterday,” Watson said.

“If you and your neighbour are having a beer or a lemonade and you’re at the end of your driveway, six feet apart or two meters apart, then enjoy.”

If that meeting turns into a party, then bylaw officers may enforce the provincial ban on gatherings for more than five people, said Watson.

How will we go back to normal? OPH considering how to ease restrictions once COVID-19 cases drop

Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, says the city isn’t past its coronavirus peak yet but the agency is already considering the best way to slowly ease physical distancing measures. 

Anthony Di Monte, the city’s general manager of emergency and protective services, said bylaw officers haven’t intervened in any cases where small numbers of people, like neighbours, are socializing at a distance on their properties.

“If people maintain the safe distance there’s no reason to,” he said.

Of the 76 charges laid relating to physical distancing, only three were issued at private residences and all were large gatherings or parties, said Di Monte.

“It’s not our intent to intervene if people are talking between driveways or over fences and we encourage them to follow Dr. Etches’ advice and keep a safe distance,” he said.

Etches was asked Wednesday how long the physical distancing measures will be in place.

She doesn’t yet have an answer but she said conversations have started on how and when to relax rules and Ottawa Public Health is looking for input from the public on which restrictions should be struck down first.

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