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Stand down, driveway police

Blair King: To beat COVID-19, we need everyone on board – and harassing people who aren’t putting themselves or others in danger is counterproductive at best.
Papers, please (George Socka /

Watching and reading the news this weekend, three stories caused me a lot of worry. Consider these headlines:

What do these three stories have in common? They are examples of how new puritans, petty bureaucrats, and irresponsible activists are eroding the public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

I have spent the last month working from home. As the parent of three elementary school-aged kids, I have had to limit what my children are allowed to do while serving as parent and teacher during the day. Our family also includes a large, lovable dog who requires lots of exercise to remain sane. This time has been hard on her; we no longer can take her to the park.

Children are naturally social, and keeping my kids away from their friends has been particularly hard. So we, like many, have taken to virtual communication as well as “block parties” during the day.

This typically entails chatting with the neighbours from the safety of the sidewalk and our driveways. The kids talk to their friends, and share their hopes and plans even if they can’t share a hug or throw a ball.

We know that Coronavirus is primarily transferred through aerosolized droplets that typically don’t travel more than two meters (as per the research Exposure to influenza virus aerosols during routine patient care) and in windy conditions can’t go close to that distance up-/cross-wind. Thus, talking to my neighbours from across the street or over a fence represents a virtually zero risk option to keep community spirit high and provide kids the socialization they need.

Similarly, with all the parks closed, there’s a greater need for kids to have space to burn off energy, get their Vitamin D, and simply be kids. With schools and community centers closed, their empty parking lots at least provide an ideal location to ride bikes or rollerblade – with the understanding they keep their social distance from others.

This rather long intro brings me back to the topic: maintaining the communal goodwill necessary to maintain the effort to fight COVID-19.

As a chemist I remember the First Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that in a closed system, increased pressure means increased temperature. Our pressure release has been the ability to interact with our neighbours in a controlled and safe manner, entirely consistent with what we understand about the rules of Social Distancing during the age of Coronavirus.

H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time.” During this pandemic there seems to be some hints of this. Some have claimed the pandemic is a test from god or our penance for our misdeeds. These new puritans appear to believe that if people are enjoying themselves, then we aren’t really fighting the pandemic properly. Instead of laying off on the pressure, they want to make things harder.

Look at the “loophole” from the first story:

If you’ve been enjoying a beer on your driveway with a friend or exchanging pleasantries with a neighbour over the garden fence, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health has a message for you:

Stop it.

Why do they say we shouldn’t have these friendly exchanges? These can turn into a party, said Moloughney.

Even if you have been technically observing physical distancing guidelines, there are still dangers to these situations, including the fact that some people who have COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms.

But if families are separated sufficiently, communicating over a fence will pose no risk. Whatever their intentions, this particular health officer will make fighting the pandemic harder, with no upside – unless there’s some added virtue to increasing suffering as a sign of piety.

The second story really gets my goat. Because our local school is closed and the gate is locked to stop cars getting in, the school parking lot represents a great place for my youngest daughter to learn to scooter while my older daughter learns to rollerblade, all under the watchful eye of our son, who ensures social distancing.

To imagine that a petty bureaucrat would ticket families making use of this open public space – instead of looking at ways to encourage safe outdoor play – simply infuriates me

Similarly, imagining that closing parks will keep people indoors is simply magical thinking. I’m told they closed the Lac Dubois Grasslands in Kamloops with its thousands of acres of hiking trails. Someone who can’t social distance in an open grassland is likely a greater risk in a city than in an open park. So closing it will likely do very little to protect the public – but will force more people to use smaller urban areas to get their exercise. We need to make more space available outside, not less.

To complete the trifecta I want to point out the opportuniPoststs: activists grafting their personal pet projects onto the fight against COVID-19.

I can think of no better example than one individual who created a “social distancing machine” to make his case.

In the video, he walks into signs and lightposts, complains, and insists this is an indication we need better urban design to protect us from COVID-19. Does he honestly believe that an urban tree will give him Coronavirus? Does he not imagine that an individual not wearing a “social distancing machine” might be able to walk on the other side of the tree to maintain correct social distancing?

Yes, he admits parts of his video were “exaggeration,” but it was much more than that. Social distancing in the city is about courtesy and simply taking your time; waiting until the way is clear, or taking another route. It requires goodwill, not stunts.

As for his suggestion that there was no space, look at the two pictures of him above and below. In both, he’s walking in the exact middle of the sidewalk/crosswalk. In both cases there was lots of room for people to comfortably pass. But he failed to get full social distancing, because he insisted on walking in the middle, and demanding space on either side.

As a thought experiment, consider a two-lane road. If you drive down the middle, no one can go by in either direction. Does that mean the road is too narrow? Of course not.

If you drive in your lane then, the other lane has lots of space for people going in the opposite direction. I submit this gentleman is not really interested in protecting against COVID-19, but riding on the coat-tails of the pandemic to advance his personal views on urban design.

The reality of our fight against Coronavirus is that we all need to work together. This pandemic is not a biblical plague set upon us, and making people suffer needlessly will only reduce the general goodwill and unity of purpose necessary to fight this thing.

Our local leaders have to crack down on the worst instincts of petty bureaucrats. Direct them to lighten up on enforcing rules about using public spaces, when doing so causes no harm. Failing that, they should relieve these petty tyrants of their duties. We also need to call out opportunists who are using this pandemic to advance their personal agendas.

The truth is, to beat this thing we have to help each other find joy in a time of sorrow. We need to find little happy moments in a time of confinement. Spending socially-distant time with our neighbours isn’t wrong, and having a beer on my driveway hurts no one.

Social distancing has a practical purpose, to limit the spread of the virus. The point is not social isolation, or forcing us all indoors. We are all in this for the long run – and that means making the best of a bad situation. It also means finding ways to increase community buy-in and public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus – and rejecting those that will lessen it.

Blair King is an environmental scientist who works out of Langley and blogs at the website A Chemist in Langley on evidence-based environmental decision-making.