October 1, 2020

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Answering some of the frequently asked questions about COVID-19

With COVID-19 now affecting the lives of Canadians on so many levels, people across the country are seeking answers to numerous important questions they have about the novel coronavirus. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

How do we evaluate risk during the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Experts in psychology and risk analysis say that while our decision-making process is the same as it was before the pandemic hit, COVID-19 is forcing us to evaluate our choices in a much more deliberate way.

"One of the elements of our risk perception is driven by what's currently occupying our attention," says Derek Koehler, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

People wearing face masks, physical distancing markers on grocery store floors and clerks behind Plexiglas barriers all serve as reminders of the risk associated with everyday life — at least for now.

Koehler expects our reaction to these signals to change as we get more used to them, just as we grew accustomed to added security measures in airports after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

He says there are two sides to decision-making: "the thinking side, and the feeling side." The thinking side is where we gather facts and evidence to make a rational judgment, while the feeling side is our emotional response when faced with different risks.

Koehler describes the feeling side as "more about preferences and values — and how important to us these different things are."

He notes that could help explain why some people have been defying the rules of physical distancing. While most appear to be taking a cautious approach, Koehler says others may disagree with the level of risk and decide the "cost of their social isolation" to be too high.

Dale Griffin, a professor of marketing and behavioural science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver says our basis for determining risk has also shifted since the pandemic started.

Decisions previously explained by function — how much time we have to do a specific activity, how much it costs — are now made with safety as the ultimate focus.

For those who have abided by physical distancing measures since March, Griffin believes some may be experiencing a "fatigue factor" that could sway their decision-making processes.

"So I think in an oversimplified way we're going to see a world of three groups from now on: those that rush out due to fatigue, those that cling to their islands of safety, and a middle group — that's probably the majority — that's going to be guided by public policy advice."

What are the risks associated with shopping during the pandemic?

As retailers begin to re-open after months of shutdown, more steps are being added to the customer's shopping experience.

Waiting in line to reduce in-store traffic, putting on hand sanitizer once you get in, and following physical distancing guide markers will be commonplace to try to keep customers and employees safe.

But experts say the risk of picking up the novel coronavirus while shopping remains.

"If many people are touching the items — and that will be the case — then yes, it could be a concern," says Satinder Kaur Brar, an expert in environmental biotechnology and decontamination at York University.

Meanwhile, University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness says contact with clothes can be separated into "two types of touching" — casual browsing when looking for a size, and the more intensive contact that comes with trying pieces on.

Because viruses don't live as long on soft materials as they do on hard surfaces, Furness says clothes are typically safer to navigate. But touching each hanger as you're shuffling through racks, and handling zippers or buttons when trying garments on can be a different story.

"There's a potential (for transmission) there, no question," Furness says. "On zipper handles and buttons, you can expect the virus to last longer than a day."

Most retailers are still allowing people to try on their apparel and quarantining articles of clothing that's been tried on, or steaming them before they're put back out on racks is another measure being enacted by stores.

Furness says introducing a "one-day delay" between when an article of clothing is tried on and when it's put back onto a rack or shelf is "a reasonable precaution to take."

He adds that steaming unpurchased clothing that's been handled by customers would be another "effective" process because viruses dislike humidity.

The experts, meanwhile, agree that asking employees or customers to wear gloves isn't very effective in helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They note gloves can't be sanitized and can be more likely to carry the virus to other surfaces.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2020.

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