Isolation fatigue: Why some are ignoring distancing rules as Toronto reopens

It's the first weekend in Toronto since March that people can shop inside stores with street entrances, relax in parks and use amenities including tennis courts, picnic tables and baseball diamonds.

Those eased restrictions, coupled with warmer weather and the fact that people have been cooped up for more than two months, is leading to isolation fatigue for some, University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens says. 

As people become more comfortable being back out in public, Joordens says, they're also feeling more at ease to break the rules.

"There's a lot of things that are making it trickier for people to continue to follow the rules," he said.

Joordens says psychologically, it can be difficult to view a gradual reopening as gradual. For example, getting together with a friend or family member outside of your household may not feel as risky when you're allowed to shop inside a store with several strangers.

Additionally, innovative ways in which people have been connecting during the pandemic — including virtual get-togethers and drive-by birthday parties — have lost their novelty, Joordens added. 

"We're also kind of feeling the limits of these creative approaches to try to connect with one another and feeling that they pale compared to the real thing," he said.

Supplied/University of Toronto

He points to the optimal arousal theory, which suggests that humans need a balanced level of excitement; if there's too much excitement, a person might crave a quiet night at home, and if there's too little, they want something to look forward to.

"We need some fun, some enjoyment in our lives," Joordens explained, adding that he's against people breaking rules for any reason.

"We can understand sports and music things being out, but the idea of visiting with family and having a barbecue in the backyard [is exciting]."

If people find themselves tempted to break a rule, Joordens says it's important to not give up, but rather to keep following the guidelines that have been put in place by health officials. 

"We can feel like we're just about there and that's the time when we most have to not go there," he said.

City sees increase in complaints

The City of Toronto says it received 167 public complaints on Friday of people not following rules in parks, which it called a "notable increase" compared to previous weeks.

In a news release Saturday, the city said enforcement officers witnessed "unruly behaviour" and crowding in many popular Toronto parks, where people displayed public intoxication and let their dogs off leashes.

Michael Charles Cole/CBC

The city said additional officers have been deployed to "problematic parks," including Trinity Bellwoods, which was packed with groups on Saturday, including some with more than five people.

Toronto's medical health officer Dr. Eileen de Villa called the crowding in Trinity Bellwoods "selfish" and "dangerous" in a tweet on Saturday. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory agrees. 

"They are putting their own health at risk and by risking the spread of the virus to others, they could contribute to the kind of setback we are trying hard to avoid," he said on Twitter. "I know from talking to them tonight these are smart people who simply have to do better going forward."

Edwin Wentworth spent part of Saturday busking at the entrance of the park — his first time back out playing music in public since the pandemic started. He said he's able to keep a safe distance from those listening or leaving him a tip.

"There's always a baseline level of worry, but I'm not acutely worried," he said.

As more people ventured outside this week, the number of positive cases climbed in both Toronto and Ontario, while the province failed to meet its testing target multiple days in a row. 

Michael Charles Cole/CBC

De Villa was asked Friday about reopening amid an upward trend of new cases. She said imposing strict lockdown measures can have negative health effects, adding that social, economic and health factors are considered when deciding how and when to reopen.

"It's always been a question of trying to strike a balance between ensuring that we have the appropriate protection against COVID-19 and giving people the opportunity to do such things as get fresh air, get some exercise and get some freedom, frankly," De Villa said.

But she says that only works if people follow the rules.

Ahead of the weekend, Mayor John Tory said he's not afraid of reassessing the reopening of parks if people don't follow physical distancing and gathering rules.

More than 100 people ticketed in parks

Between April 4 and May 21, Toronto police issued 241 tickets to people operating non-essential businesses, gathering with more than five people, using closed park amenities and failing to practice physical distancing.

"There's obviously a preference to use education as the first form of engagement," said Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. 

"We don't want to be enforcing and issuing tickets — but we will if we have to." 

The City of Toronto said police and enforcement officers issued 100 tickets between April 1 and May 21 to people not distancing specifically in parks. In the same period, 84 tickets were issued for gatherings of over five people.

The city said four additional tickets were handed out Friday, and enforcement officers have cautioned more than 4,600 people for breaking physical distancing rules since the beginning of May.