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Creating a safe space for gathering this summer

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Photo: Facebook/Cafe & Konditorei Rothe

Following more than two months of stringent public health orders that restricted most Albertans to their homes, it was welcome news when the provinces’ decision to relax some public health measures, beginning May 14.

With summer’s impending arrival, there is an intense urge to get out and resume pre-COVID-19 life. This summer, however, continued restrictions and the need to practice social distancing has halted travel plans and limited available activities.

“Protecting Albertans’ health and well-being is at the forefront of every difficult decision that is made,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, during the a recent COVID-19 update. “We do not want to jeopardize all that Albertans have risked and sacrificed by re-opening prematurely.”

While retail stores, farmers’ markets, hairstyling and barbershops, restaurants, museums, dog parks and playgrounds are now permitted to resume operations, it is not business as usual. Many summer activities will be limited or not available at all this year. However, that doesn’t mean Airdronians can’t get out and enjoy the season.

Though most mass-gatherings have been postponed or cancelled, limits for outdoor gatherings were increased from 15 to 50 people on May 15, enabling Airdronians to reconnect as long as precautions are taken. Physical-distancing requirements remain in place and food sharing is not recommended.

“We must also use our best judgment when determining whether a gathering can go ahead,” Hinshaw said.

“For example, if you are planning a gathering of friends in your backyard, only invite as many people as your yard can hold while maintaining two metres of physical distance between people from different households, and encourage people to bring their own snacks and drinks and to not share these items.”

She added, if high-touch areas such as bathrooms, doorknobs and faucets are used by people outside the household, sanitation will need occur throughout the gathering. She also recommended hand sanitizer be made available to guests.

While no one is suggesting Airdronians underestimate the pandemic or the importance of following health guidelines, it is encouraging to hear the province’s top doc speak of backyard get-togethers.

Though gatherings are a risk, isolation can take a toll on mental health and Albertans are likely itching to return to a semblance of normalcy. Those considering a gathering may be asking, “What would a social distancing gathering look like?” Though they require extra planning, a backyard get-together is not impossible.

It all starts with trust. Before proceeding with any gathering, discuss your intentions with your cohort family as Hinshaw recommends families limit contact with those outside the cohort. Cohort families are described as an agreement between two households to limit gatherings to each other. According to Hinshaw, cohort interactions don’t “necessarily need to be following that two-metre rule.”

“Expanding your cohort to a very small group of people can work, but you need to follow all guidance and ensure that everyone is committed to only being a cohort with each other,” she said. “It is important that people still limit social contact with others outside of this cohort.”

To reduce the risk, the province recommends gatherings be kept small or moved to a venue that safely accommodates physical distancing between all in attendance. Further, it asks those with any COVID-19 symptoms – cough, fever, shortness of breath, runny nose or sore throat, even if they appear mild or resemble a cold – be excluded. To limit the threat to loved ones at greater risk, consider virtual attendance for people aged 60 and older and those with chronic medical conditions.

As any gathering at this time increases the risk of spreading or contracting the virus, it’s important hosts and guests take physical distancing seriously. Only invite guests you are confident can maintain six metres of distance between each other. Prior to the gathering, ensure all guests are aware of the measures you plan to take and the expectations you have for them ahead.

This might mean leaving children off the guest list or only allowing those from your cohort family to attend. If you do decide to include youngsters, it’s reasonable to discuss with their parents the feasibility of the child respecting the guidelines and co-operatively coming up with techniques to make it easier for the child to maintain the two-metre bubble.

Stagger the time guests arrive and depart to avoid instances where social distancing could be compromised and remind guests not to shake hands or hug.

Visual reminders are key to ensuring distancing rules are followed. Set out some kind of easily identifiable marker – chairs, blankets, hula-hoops or even simple chalk circles – at six-foot intervals to cue each visitor/family where they can safely socialize. Hosts may also decide to display signage, reminding guests to keep their distance.

Another, rather comical, option is to require guests to wear social-distancing hats similar to those given to patrons of a German café upon its reopening. The hats have pool noodles, cardboard tubes or cylindrical balloons – anything measuring one metre from end to end – protruding from the hat. You could even have a prize ready for the guest who shows up with the best hat.

The province suggests hosts promote personal protective practices, including wearing non-medical masks. Though they perform the serious function of protecting others from exposure, to lighten up the somewhat uncomfortable situation ask guests to bedazzle masks before arriving and then select the winning design at the gathering.

“Remember, even if you are feeling fine and showing no sign of symptoms, you may still be able to transmit the virus to others if you have been exposed,” Hinshaw said.

Most backyard get-togethers tend to include firing up the barbecue but not during a pandemic. Instead, ask guests to bring their food and drinks, and don't allow or create opportunities for sharing of food or utensils as these are considered high-risk activities.

And if you were hoping for a sing-a-long or an outdoor karaoke session, sadly, those activities will have to wait. Singing is also considered to be high risk “because infected people can transmit the virus through their saliva or respiratory droplets.” Cheering should also be avoided as it is considered high-risk for the same reason.

While stringent distancing remains the safest way to limit the spread of COVID-19, the province seems to recognize the importance of socialization to Albertans' sense of well-being. Hinshaw stressed the need to continue health measures to avoid undoing the work of the last two months, while acknowledging being outside in well-ventilated open spaces "can be less of a risk in those contexts as long as people are following the guidelines."

“Stay socially connected, but do so as safely and responsibly as possible,” she said.

For more information on restrictions on gatherings, visit alberta.ca/restrictions-on-gatherings.aspx