Can I go for a drive during a global pandemic?

By | April 1, 2020

TORONTO — Given the continued spread of COVID-19, Canadians are spending less time outdoors. Thanks to suggestions from government and health officials to stay inside, the acts of stepping out for a bit of fresh air and going for a walk have become controversial.

But what about driving? Seeing as a car is an enclosed space, there’s less chance for outside exposure. For many, it can also be fairly relaxing, helping to relieve stress after a long day of being cooped up. So, is it OK to just go for a drive?

While the Canadian government hasn’t banned driving or publicly released any sort of guideline as to when it is acceptable to drive, the overriding message from top government officials has been to stay indoors and practise physical distancing.

“Listening to public health rules is your duty,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday during one of his daily press conferences. “Staying home is your way to serve, so be smart about what you do, about the choices you make. That is how you’ll serve your country and how we’ll all serve each other.”

Top health officials have echoed this message, asking Canadians not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, including to go to work, pick up food or medication, or to seek out medical assistance. It’s also advised not to meet with anyone you don’t live with and to keep at least two metres’ distance from others when outdoors.

With such straightforward suggestions, infectious diseases expert Dr. Isaac Bogoch says there should be no question surrounding whether or not it is acceptable to drive around unnecessarily.

“There’s clear messaging on the public health website,” he told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday via telephone. “Everyone knows what to do.”

In fact, the doctor says he’s been getting a number of questions from members of the public about specific daily practices, including something as simple as how to appropriately play tennis.

“It’s going to be impossible to micromanage every single possibility of human behaviour,” he said. “I just hope people factor in some common sense.”

Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kerry Schmidt says there is a clear answer to the question of whether it’s ok to leave the house for an aimless drive: no.

Schmidt encourages people to stay indoors and only leave the house when necessary, such as to get groceries and medication. That means not going for a drive just because you feel like it.

“If you don’t have a reason to be out, don’t be out,” he told CTVNews.ca via telephone Wednesday. “We want people to voluntarily comply with the situation we’re dealing with.”

Staying indoors plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of transmitting COVID-19, explains Dave Deines, president of the Paramedic Association of Canada. If you get into a collision, for example, you’re likely to come in close contact with a number of other people, including paramedics, firefighters and police officers. This contact increases the chances of transmitting the virus.

“Every single call we go to has the potential to be a COVID or [influenza-like illness] call, so the more people outside, the greater the risk of getting infected,” Deines told CTVNews.ca over the phone Wednesday.

While paramedics are expected to wear the highest quality protective equipment, their unpredictable work environment and close contact with patients make them especially vulnerable to infection. Staying off the road reduces the chances of requiring pre-hospital care, says Deines, which is why he recommends it.

“Generally, we know what needs to be done to flatten the curve and stop community spread,” Deines said. “Staying home is one of the things you can do to protect everyone, including first responders.”

One country that has taken measures to regulate drivers is the U.K. The British government has recently given its police the ability to issue fines and arrest anyone not complying with new lockdown measures meant to control the spread of COVID-19. According to the regulations, citizens should only be leaving their homes to go to work, shop for food and medicine, exercise, or obtain or provide medical assistance.

If anyone is discovered by police to be outdoors for any other reason, or in groups of more than two people, they can be arrested or fined – first-time offenders are fined 60 pounds (roughly $105), with fines continuing to double for each offence after.

According to Schmidt of the OPP, similar measures have not been adopted in Ontario, nor are police officers conducting spot checks on vehicles to ensure people are practising physical distancing. Despite this, he says the message to stay home as much as possible still stands.

“We’re not pulling over vehicles without cause to verify who’s inside and ask for places of residence,” he said. “But we still want people to voluntarily comply with the recommendations of public health officials and government officials, and not be a conduit of transmission.

“A lot of people are doing their part to isolate themselves and change their behaviour, but there’s still traffic out there,” he said. “All our efforts together will hopefully help flatten the curve.”

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