Stir-crazy Winnipeggers lined up outside retailers across the city over the weekend, some waiting hours to get inside stores that finally reopened after a 10-week lockdown.
That came as no surprise to Brandon University sociology Prof. Christopher Schneider, who believes people are willing to risk their own health for a taste of social interaction.
"Human beings, we’re social creatures, we’re social beings. I think that’s what this shows me, that it’s not necessarily just about buying stuff, but it’s about buying stuff together," Schneider said Monday.
"It’s a social activity that people can do, and it sort of fills the void for other social activities that we are still unable to do, like going to a Jets game or going out to a crowded pub."
"Human beings, we’re social creatures, we’re social beings. I think that’s what this shows me, that it’s not necessarily just about buying stuff, but it’s about buying stuff together." ‐ Brandon University sociology Prof. Christopher Schneider
Retailers are still required to keep their brick-and-mortar stores at 25 per cent capacity, or a maximum of 250 customers, under the latest provincial public health orders designed to curb the spread of COVID-19. But first-hand accounts from shoppers on the weekend included packed parking lots, busy malls and long lineups — even inside stores.
An Ontario epidemiologist warned that loosening restrictions comes with a "rebound effect" that occurred in Manitoba in the fall — with disastrous results.
"One of the most obvious things we don’t seem to learn is that it’s the release of the restriction, if it’s done too quickly or too carelessly, it can cause a far worse situation than there was before," said Ryerson University Prof. Tim Sly.
Even outdoor lineups are not necessarily safe, especially if a person’s waiting in them for a lengthy period of time, Sly noted, adding it's possible news of a vaccine for COVID-19 has sparked premature celebrations.
"Once people get wind of an idea that the vaccine might herald the end of the dreaded pandemic, people started to relax again like they did in the summertime," he said. "And it’s far, far too soon."
“One of the most obvious things we don’t seem to learn is that it’s the release of the restriction, if it’s done too quickly or too carelessly, it can cause a far worse situation than there was before.” ‐ Ryerson University Prof. Tim Sly.
The province has maintained its messaging around recommending people stay home and limit interactions. Schneider likened the public response to that of safe-sex education — preaching abstinence, whether it be from sex or socializing, is "never going to work," he said.
"Even when you have STIs, ones that can kill you if... you don’t get help, people will still engage in (unsafe) sex practices because sexuality is part of the human condition, even at the risk of their own personal safety," he said.
Rather, the province should focus on promoting safe socialization by getting psychologists, sociologists and other mental health professionals involved in reopening conversations, Schneider said.
"Human beings are complex creatures, and I really think we need more experts here to help drive best practices in terms of whether we decide and how we decide, to scale back restrictions and open the province to minimize harm and maximize public safety," he said.
Reopening strategies that result in packed businesses and long lineups are doomed, Sly said.
"Most of the population is still completely, 100 per cent susceptible to the virus, like a dry forest floor, dry and crispy — it just needs one match, and the whole lot goes up," he said.
"And that’s really the population of Canada right now. Any careless attempt to let down the guard and to go back to quote-unquote ‘normal,’ is fraught with all kinds of peril. We will see outbreaks at that point, no question."
A spokesperson for the province said Monday health officials were aware of the busy retail weekend and would "work with retail stores and malls to educate on the orders and capacity limits and conduct enforcement where needed."
CF Polo Park and St. Vital Shopping Centre did not respond to requests for head counts at both malls over the weekend.
— with files from Dan Lett
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.