A week of social distancing in Toronto

Overlooking Eaton Centre, March 19 2020

Ten days ago, I spent the day at City Hall and addressed the Infrastructure and Environment Committee. While I was following news of a novel coronavirus that was affecting China, Italy, and Iran, it wasn’t on my mind that day.

What a difference a few days makes.

On Thursday, the province announced that elementary and high schools would close for a three-week-long March Break in an effort to contain an outbreak here. One by one, universities and colleges cancelled in-class lessons, with instructors having to move the remainder of their classes online. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Travel restrictions came into place. Restaurants were asked, then forced, to close for dine-in guests. Theatres, cinemas, and some retail chains followed suit. Most office workers were now working from home. Libraries, recreation centres, and even outdoor skating rinks were all shut down.

By Monday, March 16, the city was quiet.

My spouse and I live in an apartment downtown, without a car, so we’ve been going on short walks in the neighbourhood, careful to keep our distance from others (this has been tough to do in supermarkets as I pick up essential food and supplies). But I find the walks are necessary for my mental well-being. They’re also surreal.

Though most stores in the Eaton Centre were open on Monday (Apple and Nike were among the first to voluntarily close all their retail stores), by Tuesday, nearly half were closed. On Thursday, only a handful were open, including, controversially, EB Games.)

The last time I saw the mall so empty during daytime hours, was walking back towards Union Station to go home from Ryerson University on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.

Eaton Centre March 19 2020Keeping distance inside Eaton Centre, Thursday, March 19, 2020

As a condition for permitting the mall’s construction in the 1970s, the City of Toronto required permanent, twenty-four hour public access along the corridor between Shuter Street and James Street, behind Old City Hall. This concession was made because the new mall required several east-west public streets to be closed between Queen and Dundas Streets.

As a matter of practice, most of the mall’s corridors remain open during all hours, providing access to local streets and two subway stations. The only time I encountered locked doors was during the 2010 G-20 Summit fiasco.

York Concourse, March 16 2020GO Transit’s York Concourse at Union Station during the afternoon rush hour on Monday, March 16

Meanwhile, other busy public spaces, such as the GO Transit concourse at Union Station were also eerily quiet. While it is good that most are able to heed the calls from public health officials and political leaders to stay home where possible, I hope that we can continue to build transit, and not enter another lost decade of service cuts and ignoring needs for more infrastructure.

Busy streets, like Bloor and Queen, are also quiet. With no where to go, there’s very little traffic.

"Hug Me" Queen Street West, March 19 2020The “Hug Me Tree” on Queen Street West

Though I want to remain optimistic, I suspect it won’t be until the end of April at least before some of the social distancing requirements are relaxed. Though it’s tough for many of us, it is necessary to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and the population as healthy as possible.

We’ve been streaming more movies and television shows and playing party games remotely with family and friends online, with audio and video links to keep us engaged with each other. Sometimes on our walks, we’ll order takeout from some of our favourite independent restaurants and coffee shops.

These are some of the little things that can be done when very little is asked of most of us.

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