News

Cancel some events, but COVID-19 shouldn't force moratorium on all public gatherings, experts say

Boston's famous St. Patrick's Day parade scrapped, Ivy league school campus classes cancelled, concerts postponed and no spectator sporting events — all measures being taken in response to the spread of the coronavirus. But experts say a moratorium on all public events might be too excessive.

'We need to assess things on an individual basis,' infectious disease specialist says

The cancellation of large events or closing schools to try and contain the coronavirus need to strike a balance between prudence and panic, experts say. 1:54

Boston's famous St. Patrick's Day parade scrapped, Ivy league school classes cancelled, concerts postponed and no spectator sporting events — all measures being taken in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

Every day that list grows. But experts say while some of these actions are reasonable, a complete moratorium on public events might be excessive.

"I think we need to assess things on an individual basis. I don't think a blanket statement about a complete cancellation versus non-cancellation is appropriate," Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist with the University Health Network, told CBC's The Current.

More than 116,000 people have been infected worldwide with the coronavirus and over 4,000 have died, prompting government officials and event organizers to take action to try to curb the spread. Some of those measures include:

  • U.S. universities including Harvard and Princeton cancelling on-campus classes, transitioning to online classes.
  • Soccer matches in Spain and France playing in empty stadiums.
  • Cancellation of Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
  • New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announcing schools, places of worship and other large gathering spots within a one-mile zone of the city of New Rochelle closing their doors for 14 days.
  • Pearl Jam postponing their North American tour.

"I think we have to examine the specifics at each particular event," Sharkawy said.

"When we're talking about scales of thousands of people, it makes very good sense from a public health perspective to cancel events," he said.

LISTEN: This infectious diseases specialist worries about potential social unrest if there's prolonged isolation due to event cancellations.

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy questions the "reasonability" of cancelling some major public events in response to coronavirus. 2:14

However, Sharkawy questioned how reasonable it would be to close movie theatres, or hold sporting events in empty stadiums.

"I do wonder if it is a bit overkill at this point in time."

Susy Hota, associate professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, says — depending on what's happening in a certain region — trying to keep people from congregating in large areas is warranted. 

But, "if you're not having a lot of COVID-19 circulating in your region it's not necessary to enact those kinds of measures," she said. 

"Once we start to see community spread [of the virus] within different areas, that would be a time where you want to encourage people to not go to these gatherings."

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, says he agrees with the U.S. universities that switched to virtual classes, given that the virus transmits easily when people are close together.

"I'm also in agreement with the increased scrutiny of larger public gatherings like concerts as well in areas where we are seeing increasing cases of disease, like in Washington State, California and New York," he said in an email. 

In Canada, Air Canada has suspended flights to and from Italy. Many school trips abroad have been cancelled, but schools themselves remain open as do university on-campus classes. But in a possible sign of things to come, New Brunswick government officials announced that students and chaperones who have returned or will return from international travel must avoid public schools for two weeks.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has issued guidelines on "risk-informed decision-making for mass gatherings during the global outbreak." Those considerations include:

  • Where the people are coming from, and how many are expected to attend.
  • Whether the event is indoors or outdoors, its duration and if members of the crowd will be consistently within two metres of one another.
  • Whether hand hygiene stations are available.

"Mass gatherings are not homogenous and the risk must be assessed on a case-by-case basis," by authorities and organizers, the PHAC website says. 

Scuttling the St. Patrick's Day parade may be unnecessary because it's an outdoor event, where people would probably wear gloves, which is an extra protective layer says Colin Furness, an assistant professor with the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information.

"Indoors, obviously, much, much worse, especially for you in a crowded seating environment like a stadium and someone behind you is coughing," he said.

Boston's famous St. Patrick's Day parade has been scrapped amid fears of the coronavirus, but experts are divided on whether calling off large public events is the right approach. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Furness said he also supports cancelling events, like conferences, when people have travelled from multiple places. 

"Those are the things that probably need to go," Furness said. "Those are far more dangerous than, say, an event in Toronto where right now we don't think there's any community spread, that's not really high risk.

"I understand why events have been cancelled. And I think in many cases, it is wise to do it."

Stephen Hoption Cann, a professor at the University of B.C.'s School of Population and Public Health, said in an email that experts are divided on how useful such measures are. For example, public health officials in Britain have advised against cancelling large outdoor events such as football matches as there is a lower probability of virus transmission.

"On the one hand, greater air circulation would dilute the virus and lower the risk of transmission than might occur at a board meeting or during a dinner party," he said. "But still if you happen to be within a few feet of someone coughing, even in an outdoor environment for some time, then it is hardly risk free."

Pearl Jam is postponing multiple U.S. and Canadian shows on their new tour because of coronavirus concerns. (Charles Sykes/Associated Press)

Peter Hall, a University of Waterloo professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems, said in an email the actions taken so far are not too drastic if the primary goal is preventing spread, and the negative consequences of the actions are not too severe.

But the risk of the disease may be negligible for children and young adults, while higher for older adults, meaning there "might be better balance of costs and benefits to direct more extreme measures at protecting older adults or those who are medically ill," he said.

With files from Ellen Mauro and The Associated Press