When March Break never ended and the COVID spring began

·13 min read
Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency in March 2020 to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The state of emergency has lasted nearly a year. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency in March 2020 to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The state of emergency has lasted nearly a year. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)

Monday marks the one-year anniversary of Nova Scotia's first COVID-19 case. CBC looks back on how the virus went from a distant concern to a state of emergency in eight critical weeks.

In February 2020, Ken Zhou of Sydney, N.S., didn't like what he was hearing from his family back in China. The government was telling people to stay home and not gather in groups as it struggled with a surging coronavirus. His mother-in-law begged him to keep his children home from school in Cape Breton.

He worried his Chinese restaurant could be a vector for the virus, so he took what CBC at the time called the "extreme step" of shutting down for the month. Fortune Star Chinese Restaurant was the first business in Nova Scotia to close due to the virus. "I'm very worried," Zhou told CBC.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province's then little-known chief medical officer of health, said Zhou had overreacted.

"The media is focused on the number of cases and the number of people dying, and it's a significant issue in China, but we need to put that into the Canadian context," Strang told CBC. "While I appreciate why people are concerned and even fearful, the risk in Canada and Nova Scotia remains extremely low."

Ken Zhou shut the Fortune Star restaurant in Sydney, N.S., in February 2020. His decision was called an overreaction at the time.
Ken Zhou shut the Fortune Star restaurant in Sydney, N.S., in February 2020. His decision was called an overreaction at the time. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

To most Nova Scotians, coronavirus was happening elsewhere and to other people. Even at the end of February, Tourism Nova Scotia's chief concern was that fewer people would visit over the summer. The organization actually wanted more Chinese people to visit the province. In 2018, about 5,000 Chinese people visited; the goal was to increase that to 50,000 by 2024.

"I think Nova Scotia is well-positioned right now because the public health authorities are saying the risk in our area is exceptionally low. We certainly have that in our favour," said CEO Michele Saran. "I believe this is a short-term thing."

Direct flights from Halifax to China were scheduled to run in September and October, and that seemed enough to save the tourism season. The Port of Halifax released its cruise ship schedule for the season, which would start April 11 and bring 200 vessels with 350,000 people.

Strang, meanwhile, said the coronavirus could become like influenza, a worldwide virus that is managed and controlled every year. He said public health officials did have plans for a worst-case scenario if the virus ever reached Nova Scotia.

Hand sanitizer starts to vanish

But things changed rapidly as February turned into a March none would ever forget. Just a few days into the month, the province floated a controversial idea: banning international school trips for 2020. It still seemed like an overreaction to many.

In the first week of March, rumours spread that someone had tested positive for coronavirus in Halifax, or maybe on a military base. Nova Scotia's health authority dismissed the claim as baseless. Canada had 33 known cases at the time, but none in Atlantic Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada said the risk for all Canadians remained low.

But on March 6, the rumours proved to carry some truth. Two Canadian Forces members had been in Italy and were quarantining at CFB Greenwood. Both later tested negative, meaning Nova Scotia still had no coronavirus cases.

Strang now thought it was "quite probable" that Nova Scotia would see some cases. So far, 23 people had been tested and all the results had come back negative.

Strang said Halifax might have to close public facilities and ban large gatherings if things got really bad. He urged people to cough into their sleeves, not touch their face and to wash their hands often. The province was nine days away from a state of emergency and total shutdown, but few people saw it coming.

Some started buying or making masks. Public Health said there was no evidence masks could keep you from getting the virus, though it would stop people from spreading it. At the time, health officials thought masks could actually increase the risk, as mask-wearers would touch their faces more often.

Strang told employers to stop asking for sick notes and to just let people stay home when they're unwell.

Hand sanitizer was rarely the subject of news photos in Nova Scotia before March 2020.
Hand sanitizer was rarely the subject of news photos in Nova Scotia before March 2020.(Michael Wilson/CBC)

Hand sanitizer began to vanish from store shelves. A Dartmouth pharmacist assured people washing with soap and water worked better than the gels. She couldn't say when they'd have more sanitizer.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University's school of management who specializes in food distribution, said we're inclined to "panic shop" when faced with a storm or deadly virus that could trap us inside our homes. He urged Nova Scotians to not overreact, but to keep enough food in the house for at least three days.

On March 10, Canada experienced its first death from COVID-19, a B.C. man in his 80s. Experts still said there was no need to panic. Most Canadians would not be seriously hurt even if they caught the disease. "Social distancing" was introduced with quote marks and an explanation of what the odd phrase meant.

A student in Halifax from Wuhan told CBC how her passport had been lost, meaning she couldn't go home. She expected the travel ban to Wuhan would be lifted soon and she could visit the city in the summer of 2020.

March breakdown

On March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 was a pandemic. In Nova Scotia, March Break was due to run from March 16 to 20, and students and teachers would be back in class Monday, March 23. Education Minister Zach Churchill said students could still travel abroad over March Break and return to classes that Monday. A mandatory quarantine for such students wasn't on the table, he said.

But two Nova Scotia schools — We'koqma'q Mikmaw School in Cape Breton and King's-Edgehill School in Windsor — took what seemed like the extraordinary step of saying they'd stay closed for two weeks after March Break.

Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, urged a stronger approach across the province. "You're better off to be heavy on your response preventively than you are to try to remediate once it's here," he said.

The storm drew closer, and by March 12 tourism businesses admitted to "downright nervousness" that the virus could hamper the 2020 tourism season. People still expected there to be a 2020 tourism season. No one could have told you what an Atlantic bubble was, or any other kind of bubbling.

On the same day, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage and his staff became among the first Nova Scotians to self-isolate after having contact with someone who was being tested for COVID-19. All 57 tests done in Nova Scotia to date had come back negative, as did his and those for his staff.

By March 13, the federal government had suspended the cruise ship season to July. Halifax port officials said that would mean 40 vessels would have to reschedule to the fall, or cancel. Cape Breton would lose about 22 ships. Most still hoped dealing with it now would lead to a normal September 2020.

That same day, New Brunswick reported its first positive case, but Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador were still clear.

In the days before March Break, Premier Stephen McNeil and Strang changed the rules so that anyone who left Canada during the break would have to self-isolate for 14 days when they returned. But everyone else would return to the classroom March 23.

A Halifax Sobeys showed a reduced stock of paper towels and toilet paper on March 12, 2020.
A Halifax Sobeys showed a reduced stock of paper towels and toilet paper on March 12, 2020.(Richard Woodbury/CBC)

Toilet paper started vanishing from store shelves. Cleaning aisles were picked clean. A food expert raised the possibility of rationing key items. Charlebois, the Dalhousie food expert, expected Atlantic Canadians to start panic shopping after March Break. He warned the COVID-19 pandemic could last a long time.

Things fall apart

Things started crumbling March 15, with the first presumptive cases of the virus in Nova Scotia.

McNeil said all schools would now stay closed until April 3. "If we don't feel comfortable with opening schools, this will be extended," McNeil said. The longest March Break in history was underway.

Long-term care homes were shut to the public. Restaurants moved tables to keep customers two metres away from other diners. The health authority started seeking more ventilators amid a global shortage. Advocacy groups called for some prisoners to be let out of jail to avoid the virus.

Nova Scotians learned about the "quite extraordinary powers" in the Health Protection Act, which could lead to arrests and forced quarantines. It could even be used to declare a state of emergency, which would restrict access to parts of the province.

On March 16, public gatherings were capped at 150. "We'll do whatever we have to do to protect public health," Strang said, but said he preferred "polite conversation" to punishment.

By March 17, the province had seven cases and public gatherings were cut back to 50 people. Hospitals started delaying or cancelling procedures. Bars were closed and restaurants could only offer takeout. The province could now test 200 people a day.

Premier Stephen McNeil, Dr. Robert Strang and Dr. Brendan Carr of the Nova Scotia Health Authority sit together on March 17, 2020.
Premier Stephen McNeil, Dr. Robert Strang and Dr. Brendan Carr of the Nova Scotia Health Authority sit together on March 17, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The photo of the news conference looks like a historical artifact these days. Strang, McNeil and others sit nearly elbow-to-elbow on the dais, with not a mask in sight. "My message to Nova Scotians is to be home with your loved ones," McNeil said. "Try to be out of the public as much as you can be."

But the scheduled last day of March Break turned out to be a breaking point for the province. That Sunday, March 22, McNeil told Nova Scotians he had declared a state of emergency, giving the government enormous powers to essentially put every person in the province under house arrest.

He implored citizens to stay home and away from others. The province shut down parks and trails. If more than five people were seen together, police could and would ticket them. The premier told people to leave home only for essential supplies, or for exercise in their neighbourhood.

Nova Scotia's border with New Brunswick, established 236 years earlier, had long been invisible. Suddenly it was patrolled by officials in bright vests. They stopped cars and grilled drivers about where they'd been and where they were going.

The Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border had been invisible for two centuries before COVID-19 struck.
The Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border had been invisible for two centuries before COVID-19 struck. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

McNeil told most people to stay out of Nova Scotia. The province had 28 total cases.

On Monday, March 23 — the day school was originally supposed to resume — Strang warned the schools would likely stay closed beyond April 3. "I fully expect this is a six to eight-week period of time that we have to be very strict, but we will be monitoring this closely," he said.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union said the government had shared no plans for learning without a classroom.

On a busy March 25, as Nova Scotia's case count rose to 73, medical experts told CBC that the online fad for making your own mask might do more harm than good.

"We don't know for sure ... how they work. That's not science, that's kind of just stuff that people have been trying out," a doctor said about homemade masks. "It gives you a false sense of security."

Firefighters were stood down from responding to medical emergencies, a move that would later lead to tragedy.

'I'm not trying to scare you'

Strang told people it was normal to be afraid. "If we stick with it for the next few weeks, we have the opportunity to really get out in front and stay out in front of this and minimize the spread and the impact in Nova Scotia," he said

McNeil scolded people who had gathered on St. Patrick's Day. "I'm not trying to scare you, I'm actually trying to convince you [that] when we say, 'Stop gathering and stay home,' we mean it," he said.

Schools were still officially due to reopen in April, but the education minister was entertaining some unconventional ideas should they stay shut. "One of the conversations we've been having with my counterparts across the country is the potential use of radio where internet might not be available," Churchill said.

The gate to the lower parking lot of Point Pleasant Park was closed and locked on March 23, 2020, the first full day Nova Scotia was under a state of emergency due to COVID-19.
The gate to the lower parking lot of Point Pleasant Park was closed and locked on March 23, 2020, the first full day Nova Scotia was under a state of emergency due to COVID-19.(Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Near the end of March, a 44-year-old woman went for a walk in Point Pleasant Park. Police raced in after her and handed out the first pandemic ticket.

A Truro man returned from out-of-province travel, but didn't self-isolate. His neighbours called the police, who ticketed him. Nova Scotia now had 122 cases, including the first at a long-term care home, a breach in a wall that would prove deadly.

McNeil scowled at the next news conference. "I'm hearing stories of grocery stores packed with people, groups out playing sports — you are the reckless few," he said. "And not only am I upset, and Dr. Strang is upset, your fellow Nova Scotians are upset with you. We've had it."

Everyone was suddenly talking about flattening the curve. People could barely plan out a day, let alone a week. Many turned into doomsday preppers, stocking food and cleaning supplies wherever they could shove them.

The last day of the month saw the province hit 147 cases. Strang warned that scammers were spreading dodgy health information and selling black-market gloves and masks. "Don't be taken in by these people who are preying on your concerns and your fears," Strang said.

Schools were officially closed until May 1; in fact, they would not open again that school year. Teachers and students scrambled to wrap their heads around remote education.

On April 3, McNeil boiled over. "I'm not trying to scare you, but part of me wishes you were scared," McNeil said as the province hit 207 cases. "The virus will find you, then it finds your loved ones and then it finds your neighbourhoods."

Almost exactly two months after Ken Zhou was accused of overreacting by shutting down his Sydney restaurant, McNeil shut down the entire province.

He ended the press conference with words that would be stitched onto T-shirts and etched into the minds of a generation of Nova Scotians: "Stay the blazes home."

The COVID spring was here.

My Home Apparel soon created these legendary T-shirts.
My Home Apparel soon created these legendary T-shirts. (My Home Apparel)

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