Public health officials ask people to stick to own households, worrying those who live alone
Reining in social contact hits hard for individuals who don't live with other people
Stephanie Belding felt "a sense of loss" when Toronto Public Health recently urged people to limit contact with others to within their own household.
Like so many others, Belding enjoyed a brief reprieve from isolation when the COVID-19 curve flattened during the summer and public health restrictions eased. The 49-year-old actor and trainer lives alone in a downtown apartment, but over the last couple of months there were plenty of opportunities to meet up with friends outside, where the risk of coronavirus transmission is considered lower.
But as COVID-19 cases, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, surged in recent weeks to alarming levels not seen since the spring, public health officials have been trying to reduce as much person-to-person contact as possible, while keeping schools open and avoiding another full lockdown.
"The concept of the bubble, or the social circle, no longer reflects the circumstances in which we live," said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, in a news briefing on Sept. 28.
"Fighting COVID-19 demands we limit contact with people we don't live with."
De Villa said that it's essential to stay two metres away from anyone outside a person's household.
More than a quarter of Canadians — and almost one-third of Torontonians — lives alone, according to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada. For many of them, retreating from in-person contact with friends and family and going back to a social life dominated by Zoom calls is a particularly daunting prospect.
"[There's a] sense of 'Oof, here we go again,'" Belding said.
But it appears that Toronto Public Health has taken notice of the hardship the spring lockdown had on people who were alone in isolation and may be prepared to make exceptions.
"I recommend that individuals only leave their homes for essential activities, such as work, education, fitness, health-care appointments, and to purchase food," de Villa wrote in a letter dated Oct. 2 to Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams.
But she also included a line suggesting "flexibility for up to two individuals from outside their household to provide social support if an individual lives alone."
The Ontario government also made reference to people living alone in a news release issued on Oct. 2 but was much less specific.
"Individuals who live alone may consider having close contact with another household," the release said.
That flexibility also doesn't appear to apply to Thanksgiving.
"Please limit your Thanksgiving dinner to the people you live with," de Villa said in a news briefing on Monday.
"If you live alone, the safest option is to join with others virtually."
WATCH | COVID-19 surge prompts new restrictions:
CBC News asked de Villa to clarify the "flexibility" for people alone she had mentioned in her letter to the province, but she did not answer the question directly, repeating that it was important for people to restrict their contacts with others as much as possible.
The Quebec government has provided more specific guidance. According to its coronavirus information web page, visitors from other households are prohibited in areas with the highest "red zone" alert level, including Montreal and Quebec. However, the web page lists an exception to allow "a single visitor from another address for single individuals," adding that "it is recommended to always have the same person in order to limit social contact."
That's exactly what Belding in Toronto has been doing for the last few months. Knowing there are many high-risk seniors in her apartment complex, she's formed a bubble with just one friend, who also lives alone in the same building and shares the same conscientious attitude toward COVID-19 prevention.
"It allows us to have kind of a sense of normalcy, of communication. I cook a lot so we can share meals, or we'll watch stuff together," she said.
"Just knowing that I have someone in my immediate vicinity that I can kind of have a relationship that isn't six feet away and masked [is helpful]."
Over the seven months of the pandemic, Oct. 2 was the first time Noah Witenoff, who lives on his own in Toronto, had heard any public health guidance acknowledging the unique challenges faced by those living alone.
"When you say a household, and you're the household, the thought of not being with other people for an extended period of time or an indefinite amount of time is overwhelming," the 42-year-old food stylist said.
COVID-19 presents an "unprecedented" challenge that highlights how much people need contact with others in a crisis, said Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus.
"The natural response we have to stress or threat or grief or any of these negative emotional states is to connect with another human being. And given the choice, we connect with them … physically," he said.
Normally, with large-scale traumatic events, "you see this pulling together of the community and … in the pre-COVID days, you know, physically being together," Joordens said.
"COVID has kind of pulled that away from us. And especially people who would be living alone when we're in these sort of isolation situations."
Crucial to have alternatives
In addition to any limited in-person contact that public health agencies might endorse, it's vital for people living alone to find other ways to stay connected — whether it's through video calls, the telephone or other creative outlets, such as making a music playlist for a friend that brings back happy memories, Joordens said.
"To just say, 'I am physically alone, but I will not be psychologically alone during this period,' I think that is absolutely critical," he said.
Witenoff got through the spring lockdown period by organizing virtual events for friends who were in a similar situation, he said, including Wednesday night Zoom chats and online movie nights.
But purely online contact isn't enough for long periods of time, he said.
After the concept of social bubbles was introduced — where a small group of people could hang out together without physical distancing provided they stayed exclusive to that group — he formed a bubble with a couple of friends.
It's important, he said, "for people who live alone to be able to merge with … another household or another person who lives alone," Witenoff said.
"I don't think I could do another full lockdown by myself."
Despite Belding's bubble with her neighbour, she's prepared to be isolated again.
Her friend plans to visit her family in British Columbia during the holidays for several weeks and would then quarantine when she returns.
"It means [it's] me and my cat," she said. "It means lots of Zoom and FaceTime and chatting on balconies or distanced outside stuff. But being very alone in the space."
Tips for people living alone
- "This is a time for social approaching," even if it's from a physical distance, said psychology professor Joordens. Get back in touch with family or friends you haven't talked to for a while. Think of new people to contact who might be in the same situation as you and appreciate the connection.
- If video chats have become tiresome or you're not feeling connected, try the "old-fashioned telephone," Joordens said. Phone conversations often require more attention and listening than Zoom chats.
- Make appointments to talk to someone regularly. Make it clear it doesn't matter if you don't have anything in particular to talk about — you can even watch TV and talk about it.
- Music can be a great way to boost your mood — and someone else's. Make a playlist that takes someone back to a fun time in their life or includes tunes they want to belt out.
- If you have a hobby you love, such as cooking or baking, consider posting a video of your activity and build an online community, Joordens said.
- Remember the basics for both physical and mental well-being: keeping a routine, eating well, sleeping well and exercising.
- It's normal not to feel OK sometimes. But if you are in distress, reach out to a friend or family member. Click here for a list of other places to get help.