July 8, 2020

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Caught in U.S. COVID-19 surge, Canadian ex-pats hunker down, spare a thought for home

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With COVID-19 cases surging in the United States, Canadians living in the country are hunkering down and find themselves thinking a bit more about home these days.

Some expats who spoke with The Canadian Press from the hardest-hit areas said they were surprised by the speed at which their respective states reopened, while others said the situation was overblown.

All are trying to maintain physical distancing and wear masks when they do go out.

"All we can do is the best we can to stay as safe as possible, but it's definitely nerve-wracking," said Houston resident and Toronto native Grace Gonzalez.

Texas surpassed 5,000 hospitalizations last week as the second-biggest state scaled back its aggressive opening strategy, ordering bars closed indefinitely and restaurants to reduce capacity.

In Houston, where Gonzalez has lived for eight years, the public threat level was raised to its highest level on Friday.

"I was in shock when they decided to open up Texas, I felt it was way too early," Gonzalez said. "We never saw a dip at all ... there wasn't any of that flattening of the curve before they decided to reopen."

Gonzalez said masks weren't prevalent in recent weeks and many went about their lives as if everything was back to normal. But she stayed at home most of the time, while making limited trips to stores.

"I feel like a lot of mentality (here) is if you feel sick or if you're in one of those groups that are immunocompromised, you should stay home, but if I'm healthy, why should I have to stay home?" Gonzalez said.

That question of individual-versus-collective good is something Ontario-born Cheryl Applebaum noted in Florida, where more and more younger people have been infected. The state set a record Saturday with more than 9,500 cases.

Officials moved to shutter beaches and discouraged bar gatherings in a state that has more than 3,300 registered COVID-19 deaths.

"It really just increased our anxiety level," said Applebaum, who lives in the Tampa area.

Applebaum was born in Windsor, Ont., raised in Toronto and his lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years with her Canadian husband.

"Both my husband and myself are in the more vulnerable age group, we're both seniors and we have been very conscientious about social distancing, wearing face coverings, proper hygiene when we go out and come in," said Applebaum. "And to see some of the people in the grocery stores relax those things has been very disconcerting."

Applebaum acknowledges the situation has her thinking about Canada a lot these days.

"To be honest, this (COVID-19) in conjunction with the political climate down here has made us seriously think about moving back," Applebaum said.

However, not all Canadians living in the U.S. are overly worried.

Ken Moon, who lives in a town just north of Dallas, feels the situation is overblown on both sides of the border.

"Others may chose to say you must hide away forever and never do anything again, but that's not how we live our lives," said Moon, a southeastern Ontario native who found out through serological testing that he'd had COVID-19 in February, with milder symptoms, despite having other health issues.

Moon said he believes the bigger numbers in recent days are more a result of increased testing. He says the only real change in his day-to-day life is wearing a mask.

"It is what it is, the biggest thing is keeping those that are infected away from the seniors' care facilities," Moon said.

Moon said he wasn't opposed to the Texas reopening plan, noting some acquaintances in Canada haven't left home in months.

"I have no idea where this idea of complete quarantine came from but that's what they're doing, and it's kind of like 'Why are you doing that?'" Moon said.

Like in Canada, the COVID-19 circumstances vary across the country.

The situation in Florida was worrisome enough for Ontario-born Laurie Turley-Michel that she headed back to her summer residence in Ohio early, with the impression that people in the Sunshine State were in denial about COVID-19.

"I was personally afraid to go out at all," said Turley-Michel, who has been in the U.S. for 15 years. "It wasn't until right before we decided to come back to Ohio that they implemented a stay-at-home order, but it didn't last long. Florida was one of the first to start reopening."

She works at a law firm where employees are mostly working remotely and clients are obliged to wear a mask for meetings. Turley-Michel has largely stayed home. other than going for groceries or essential purchases. She always wears a mask in public.

"We haven't had family over here, we live in a rural area so it's easier to stay social distanced," Turley-Michel said.

Amy Williams, who lives in a small town near the Arizona-Mexico border where cases have been low, said she was optimistic when the lockdowns in March in her home state and her home province of Ontario happened almost in lockstep.

"Ontario and Arizona issued lockdown orders within two or three days of each other and then I felt in terms of cases, we were on the same trajectory as Ontario and then our governor decided to open things up," said Williams, a native of Mississauga who will have to put off an annual summer trip home due to obligatory quarantine measures.

On Sunday, Arziona had 3,858 new cases of COVID-19. Ontario, with almost double the population, had 178.

Williams, a mother of two who works as a psychologist in the local school system, said her primary concern is how schools will reopen during the earlier August return in that state amid the spike.

"I just don't see how we're going to be able to not only physically prepare for the reopening, but mentally," Williams said.

"I don't know what that's going to look like."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2020.

— with files from Associated Press.

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