A year ago, Manitobans were able to enjoy small gatherings over the Victoria Day long weekend as the province had among lowest COVID-19 case counts in Canada.
Things are very different this time. The province has the highest per capita case count on the continent, ICU wards are strained beyond capacity and health officials are pleading with residents to stay home.
The Free Press spoke with Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr about staying safe over the weekend.
The province says you can't even meet friends outdoors. What gives?
"The outdoors offers a great deal of protection — but it can't overcome everything," said Carr.
The vast majority of COVID-19 transmission occurs indoors, as people not wearing masks expel aerosols and droplets that circulate in a room. Ventilation cuts down on that, and being outdoors likely has an effect where sun rays deactivate coronavirus particles.
But even outdoors, people who are sitting close together, especially facing each other without masks, can still transmit the virus.
"This is really difficult. People need safe options, to be outdoors and do things that are healthy to help them cope with their mental and physical health." – Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr
"That's particularly with these much more-transmissible variants of concern, like the B.1.1.7 that is very predominant (in Manitoba) now," Carr said.
That's why the province is only allowing people from the same household to visit parks, recreation facilities or beaches (although the weather forecast and May long weekend history pretty much rule out beach visits, anyway).
"This is really difficult. People need safe options, to be outdoors and do things that are healthy to help them cope with their mental and physical health," said Carr.
How can we camp safely?
The province is insisting Manitobans stick with household members only, and has asked conservation officers to enforce the emergency orders.
Face masks should be worn inside all buildings — that includes washrooms, offices, visitor centres and shelters, officials say, advising campers to pack hand sanitizer, in case provided supplies run out.
If showers are open, Carr doesn't see too much of an issue if only one person is using them at a time.
The virus is less viable in humid, warm conditions, particularly when the water is pushing everything to the ground. And many camping showers have upper slits in the wall that introduce fresh air. But it's still not risk-free, Carr said.
"People have to follow the rules; if somebody is already in the shower area and it seems small, you might want to wait," she said.
Why can't we do lower-risk activities?
Carr does not set provincial policy, but she noted that Manitoba's health system is in such dire straits that numbers need to come down, and there are few restrictions left to tamper with.
Data shows Manitobans with COVID-19 often report only a handful of contacts, suggesting that they're already not seeing many people outside their own households. That means public-health officials need people to cut out the one or two friends they have still been seeing recently.
"For the next few weeks, we really need to keep as little contact as possible, until more people are vaccinated," Carr said.
"The math is simple: the more we allow these more transmissible variants to thrive, the higher and higher our vaccination rate needs to be to get over this." – Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr
Otherwise, the number of people needing to get their shot rises in tandem with case counts, because the COVID-19 variants reproduce as cases increase.
"The math is simple: the more we allow these more transmissible variants to thrive, the higher and higher our vaccination rate needs to be to get over this," she said.
"This is not theory; this is a very straightforward, mathematical model."
That trend could get even worse with variants that evade vaccines, which appear to already be present in Canada. Staying apart prevents the variants from finding new hosts.
What if I live alone?
Single people are allowed to visit one designated person "with whom they regularly interact" at each others' homes, according to the public-health order taking effect Saturday.
Ironically, they can see each other outdoors on their own personal property, but not in any park or other outdoor venues. That's despite the lower risk of transmission of COVID-19 outdoors.
Apartment-dwellers without balconies now can't see their friends in a public park where they would actually have more space to stay apart, nor can they have guests indoors with the exception of their one designated visitor.
Carr said singletons can still get out of the house solo.
"Do what you can to get a change of scenery — get out, get a walk, if you have a vehicle maybe you can go for a little drive. Just to get a different perspective," she said.
Carr added that single people should connect with friends virtually or by phone. And people should make an effort to reach out to isolated friends and family.
"Many people who live alone are vulnerable people who don't necessarily have a computer or smartphone, and people are really suffering," Carr said.
That means calling an elderly parent, but not visiting.
"It would be very difficult to not feel the need to see that person. But right now, if the public-health orders are saying you can't even do that, please just keep the contact by phone or any other way you can."
What's our way out of this?
"The first thing you should do this weekend is make an appointment to get vaccinated," Carr said. "We have to do this, because people are suffering on every level."
She said a somewhat normal summer is still within reach.
"Even just for two weeks, if we can buckle down and get as many people as possible get vaccinated, that will make a significant difference."