As conditions improve, people — and institutions — struggle to lower their guard

OPINION: The threat of COVID-19 has, for most of us, significantly receded. Some people will be slow to return to normal. Bureaucracies will be even slower
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 13, 2021
One spectator per child is the rule for some youth sports. (gilaxia/iStock)

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One day, in a post-COVID-19 future, the period of time we spent exiting the pandemic, mopping up the last outbreaks, delivering the last jabs of the main vaccination campaign, and completing a phased reopening will hopefully seem like a brief, happy period. Human memory is tricky like that. Stuff that was complicated and drawn out can be filed away neatly in your brain as a little-remembered brief period of transition between two more fully recalled eras. But we are likely living that period now, and it doesn’t seem all that brief or happy.

Yes, yes, I’ve touched wood after saying that. COVID-19 is nasty and surprising, and we can’t take anything for granted. We can, though, admit that, right through to Thanksgiving, Ontario’s metrics looked pretty solid. Daily case averages are declining. So are hospital-utilization metrics. Thanksgiving long weekend, with the attendant travel and indoor gatherings, will be an interesting test. But, if nothing else, so far, so good. Better than many of us expected, and that includes this writer.

If this is almost over — a big if, but let’s run with it — then it’s safe to say that we are already in that period of mopping up. Vaccinating children remains a large unaccomplished task, and certain sectors of the economy still haven’t returned to normal operations. Our use of rapid testing is still, ahem, evolving. But we might really be done with the worst of it. The remaining challenge at this point likely isn’t logistical or political, but psychological. We have to get back to something more like the old normal.

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You might have heard the late-Friday-afternoon news dump by the provincial government, announcing that large entertainment venues were returning to full capacity. Fans of pro sports will be thrilled. (Go Leafs Go. Sigh.) But what about small venues? Almost exactly six weeks ago, I wrote here about my desperate hope that youth organized sports and activities would soon return to normal or something close to it. Again, without wanting to tempt fate, thus far, they have. My son’s hockey league is due to reopen in two weeks. My eldest niece’s first game is tonight. She’s playing at the rink closest to our home, but I can’t pop by to cheer her on. Capacity limits remain in place: one spectator per child. 

I can’t watch my niece. My parents can’t watch any of their grandkids. My niece and son can’t even have both parents watching them at once. It’s one or the other. I’m the designated skate-tier, so I have to be there. Will my wife see our son play this season?

Finding out information about the future plan is difficult. Everyone is waiting and seeing. The lack of a reliable vaccination passport is part of the official explanation — “No spectators will be permitted in the facility until consistent and reliable proof of vaccination is available for the general public,” one of the local leagues explained. It’s not clear what that means, exactly, but one suspects the little easily forged PDFs we all downloaded don’t quite cut it. Last month, I wrote here at TVO.org about the five or six wasted weeks during which Doug Ford and his government insisted that there would be no vaccination passport in Ontario, to avoid “splitting society,” or some such nonsense, before the eventual and inevitable buckling to the forces of objective reality. In that column, I asked whether we’d end up missing those five or six wasted weeks. What would the delay cost us, I wondered.

At the time, my concern was a major fourth wave, of the kind now savaging Alberta and Saskatchewan. That hasn’t happened, thank God. But my words came back to me last night as I pondered the fact that the kids getting back on the ice will do so with very few loved ones to cheer them on. That, too, is a cost. If we had started the work on a reliable and secure Ontario vaccine passport earlier, would we have it already? Would it have been in place to screen attendees arriving to cheer on the little ones as they finally get back on the ice?

I’m honestly not sure, and I won’t go for some easy but only semi-factual dunk on the premier here. Ford isn’t personally holding me back from cheering on my niece’s team. We can certainly say, though, with total confidence, that he and his government weren’t as helpful as they could have been in terms of making that happy event more possible and bringing it about as soon as possible. If nothing else, they slowed it down.

But even setting aside the role of the government, there’s also the rest of us to consider. My colleague and friend Jen Gerson wrote a thoughtful column last week at The Line (disclosure: I am co-editor there with her). She noted that none of us is acting quite normal lately. Instead of the post-COVID-19 mental-health crisis being a thing we may eventually move into, perhaps this is it right here, right now, and we can’t see it for what it is because it’s all around us. We’re inside it. And while that certainly includes some of the fanatically deranged behaviour we’ve seen from anti-vaccination and anti-mandate protesters, any fair analysis also has to include those who are struggling to accept that, in Ontario and at the present moment, at least, the threat of COVID-19 has, for most people, significantly receded. Many people who’ve been on high alert since March 2020 may struggle to begin a cautious lowering of their guard as conditions improve.

That’s an important insight, and it’s even more true of institutions than people. People let their guard down all the time. We’re notorious for it. But institutions, governed by risk-averse policies driven by onerous insurance companies fearful of a liability lawsuit, will be slower to return to normal. This is especially true for government-linked institutions ... which includes many, many youth-oriented athletic facilities.

This is why I don’t blame Ford, entirely, for this. Even if we had brand-spanking-new vaccine-passport apps on all our shiny smartphones, institutions — say, just to pick a random example, a municipal sports-arena complex — need to adapt their policies in line with the changing reality. An excellent first step would be allowing more spectators per child — enough to permit both parents to watch their child play. And as long as the public-health metrics remain good and vaccine passports are honoured, we should open it up even more from there.

I am a realist. There will be bureaucratic lag at every step of the reopening. Caution demands no less; a modest lag is more feature than bug. But the key word there is “modest.” Bureaucracies are resistant to change, and temporary emergency orders have a habit of hanging around long after the emergency has passed. As conditions improve, the public will likely have to demand a return to normal — not to rush it, per se, but simply to ensure it doesn’t grind to a halt as so many things do upon contact with the blob of Canadian governance. Because while a modest delay may build in a margin of error, anything more starts imposing its own societal cost. We’ve all paid enough already. Let’s not let inertia take a further toll.

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