Limit COVID-19 spread: Top doctor urges signs instead of shouting at protests

Top health officials, acknowledging a striking lack of data on how the pandemic has hit marginalized communities, are encouraging anti-racism rally-goers to make their voices heard while keeping COVID-19 safety in mind.

A black man died last week in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck. George Floyd's death has sent throngs into the streets in several U.S. and Canadian cities to decry systemic racism and police brutality.

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For months, public health authorities have discouraged large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but neither Canada's health minister nor its chief public health officer are suggesting people avoid taking part in protests.

"Gathering together is a very powerful way to lend that support and to be an ally," Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Monday. "There are ways to do it more safely."

She suggested protesters make sure they have hand sanitizer and wear masks, because physical distancing may not be possible.

"Although we've seen much more peaceful protests in general here in Canada, we still encourage people to be very careful when they're congregating in large crowds."

Top doctor Theresa Tam added that signs and noisemakers are safer ways for demonstrators to express themselves than raising their voices.

"Shouting and that type of behaviour can potentially project more droplets," she said. "Be considerate of others. People are out to protest to support a common goal."

Both Tam and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada needs to do a better job collecting race-based pandemic data.

"We do know that COVID doesn't hit everyone the same way ... racialized communities are living this very differently than others," Trudeau said.

"That's why having accurate pictures of how people are being affected by this — and therefore how we can and should help them — is going to be really important going forward."

Trudeau said his government has been working with provinces to get more detailed data.

Tam said federal officials are now able to get 99 per cent of case files from provinces and territories, but they still don't include a breakdown on ethnicity. Her office is working with Statistics Canada to get better information, she said.

She added that local data for cities such as Toronto and Montreal has confirmed certain neighbourhoods have been worse-hit than others, perhaps because of workplace outbreaks or crowded living conditions.

Also Monday, Trudeau announced Ottawa is advancing $2.2 billion in expected infrastructure funding to cities and towns. Sending gas-tax funds sooner than planned should ease municipal cash-flow concerns.

"We know that this is just an initial measure that brings forward money that the cities were going to get six months from now anyway," said Trudeau. "But there is a need right now for liquidity for support as they deal with this COVID crisis."

Meanwhile, provinces were continuing to loosen their pandemic restrictions Monday.

Schools reopened in British Columbia for children with parents OK with their kids attending. Most kindergarten to Grade 5 students can opt to go half time if they wish, while Grades 6 to 12 in-person classes are set for one day a week.

Manitoba eased its ban on care-home visits. Community centres, seniors clubs, fitness clubs, dine-in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, pools, amateur sports and recreation programs were also free to reopen, but with limits on customer capacity and rules for physical distancing.

Don Van Dale and his son were reopening Dakota Lanes bowling alley in Winnipeg.

"We're half-happy because we can only go half-open," he said.

Extra staff were on hand for sanitizing and bowlers were being offered disposable shoes.

One gym, Fit Club North Winnipeg, posted on Facebook that it would wait another week, because it has had to type up a complete manual, including instructions on how to enter the building.

Also in Manitoba, film productions were allowed to resume and a ban on non-essential travel to the province's north was being eased.

In Ontario, drive-in movie theatres and batting cages were allowed to reopen Sunday, and campers can now return to provincial parks, with stipulations.

Prince Edward Island is allowing in-house dining as well as reopening of child-care centres and libraries. Also allowed are outdoor visits with residents at long-term care homes, certain recreational and sporting activities and gatherings of up to 15 people indoors and 20 outdoors.

More than half of Canada's 48 national parks were also accessible for day use as of Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020

— With files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg

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