When Toronto councillor Josh Matlow came out of his basement for the first time in two weeks on Friday, the first thing he did was hug his wife and seven-year-old daughter.
"Every day, I just thought about the day that I could come up and give them a hug," said Matlow, who represents Ward 12.
But while he was excited to leave self-isolation, he says, "[I] left the basement to just arrive up in purgatory with the rest of the world."
Toronto has changed dramatically since Matlow went into self-isolation on March 9, after learning he had come in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. Two weeks ago the Raptors were still playing, Ontario schools were in session, and "social distancing" was not yet the norm.
Matlow says it was "surreal" watching events unfold from his basement. He was one of the earliest Canadian politicians to go into self-isolation, and at the time it was "shocking to a lot of people," he says — and also carried some stigma.
Now with many people self-isolating to stop the spread of COVID-19, Matlow encourages others in isolation to take care of their mental health, try to help people — and appreciate this rare time as best you can.
Getting out of sweat pants, dance parties with his daughter
Matlow tried to maintain structure during his 14 days in his basement, saying he was "dedicated" to mental and physical health.
After the first few days of wearing sweat pants, Matlow started getting dressed in a button-down shirt. He tried to walk more than 10,000 steps a day, pacing back and forth while on the phone, doing sit-ups and push-ups, and running in the room.
Many nights he would have a dance party with his seven-year-old daughter, who would stand at the top of the basement stairs.
"We'd at least try to create a sense of normalcy and even fun together," he said.
When his family was asleep, Matlow says he would come upstairs wearing a mask and gloves to put dirty dishes in the dishwasher.
Over the phone, people would tell him how things were changing in Toronto streets and grocery stores.
Matlow says he was "constantly working" from the basement, and tried to be encouraging and helpful as a city councillor. He urged others in self-isolation to stay engaged and productive.
"When you're in self-isolation, your life doesn't pause," he said.
He only watched one movie — Rocket Man — but said he couldn't enjoy it much.
"I kept looking at how the crowds would gather ... or people embracing each other," he said. "It just seemed weird, given the reality that we're living in today."
A rare time for self-reflection
Despite the challenges, Matlow says, it was also a rare time to self-reflect and try to improve.
"Rather than watch Netflix, I did a lot of thinking about my relationships, about the things that I can do to help in the world, ways that I can be more present for my family," he said.
"In a way that space is very healthy."
Normally the city councillor would be at public events during the evenings, not dancing with his daughter, he said — even if they were 20 feet apart.
He also focused on gratitude; the smaller pleasures were much more acute.
"Every time I'd have a cup of green tea, it was the best green tea I ever had," he said.
"Those warm showers would just feel so damn good."
Matlow says he's grateful to have a basement where he can self-isolate, thinking of the many Torontonians living in tiny apartments and those who are already socially isolated.
He stressed the importance of listening to public health advice, connecting with vulnerable people, and taking care of your mental health.
"Our physical health is going to be paramount," he said. "But our mental health is going to be just as important to take care of."
If you have more time on your hands, he said, think of isolated or vulnerable people who would appreciate getting a call.
'Re-proposing' to his wife, advice for others
After coming out of the basement, Matlow says it was "incredible" to have coffee in his living room. He went for a walk with his family, where he "re-proposed" to his wife — something he had planned to do on a cancelled March break trip after replacing a lost wedding ring.
But while Matlow was happy to come upstairs, he knows he emerged into a very different and difficult world.
His advice for others in self-isolation?
"Be kind to yourself and be kind to others," he said.
Call people you love, don't focus on sadness, and see how you can contribute to the world, he said. Read about things other than COVID-19 — and focus on what you can appreciate.
"Even if it doesn't feel like it," he said, "you're part of the solution."
"That's why you're doing this. You're saving lives. Literally."