A protester holds up a sign during a demonstration calling for justice in the death of George Floyd and victims of police brutality in Montreal, Sunday, May 31, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Canada’s top doctor urges signs instead of shouting to stop COVID-19 spread at protests

Dr. Tam says signs and noisemakers are safer ways for demonstrators to express themselves

Top health officials are encouraging anti-racism rally-goers to make their voices heard while keeping COVID-19 safety in mind, as they acknowledged a striking lack of data on how marginalized communities have been hit by the pandemic.

A black man died last week in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck, sending throngs into the streets in several U.S. and Canadian cities to decry systemic racism and police brutality.

For months, public health authorities have discouraged large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but neither Canada’s health minister nor its chief public health officer are suggesting people avoid taking to the streets in this case.

“Gathering together is a very powerful way to lend that support and to be an ally,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters Monday. ”There are ways to do it more safely.”

She suggested protesters make sure they have hand sanitizer and wear masks, as physical distancing may not be possible.

“Although we’ve seen much more peaceful protests in general here in Canada, we still encourage people to be very careful when they’re congregating in large crowds.”

PHOTOS: Thousands gather at Vancouver Art Gallery to protest racism

Top doctor Theresa Tam added that signs and noisemakers are safer ways for demonstrators to express themselves than raising their voices.

“Shouting and that type of behaviour can potentially project more droplets,” she said. ”Be considerate of others. People are out to protest to support a common goal.”

Both Tam and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that Canada needs to do a better job collecting race-based pandemic data.

“We do know that COVID doesn’t hit everyone the same way … racialized communities are living this very differently than others,” Trudeau told reporters.

“People who are already vulnerable for different reasons can become more vulnerable to COVID-19. That’s why having accurate pictures of how people are being affected by this, and therefore how we can and should help them, is going to be really important going forward.”

Trudeau said his government has been working with provinces to get more detailed data.

Tam said federal officials are now able to get 99 per cent of case files from provinces and territories, but they still don’t include a breakdown on ethnicity. She said her office is working with Statistics Canada to get better information.

She said local data in cities like Toronto and Montreal have confirmed certain neighbourhoods have been worse-hit than others, perhaps because of workplace outbreaks or crowded living conditions.

Also Monday, Trudeau announced Ottawa is advancing $2.2 billion in expected infrastructure funding to cities and towns, saying that sending gas-tax funds months sooner than planned should ease municipal cashflow concerns.

Normally, payments are made in two instalments to over 3,600 communities: first in the summer, then later in the year.

“We know that this is just an initial measure that brings forward money that the cities were going to get six months from now anyway,” said Trudeau. “But there is a need right now for liquidity for support as they deal with this COVID crisis.”

READ MORE: Feds to fast-track $2.2B in funding for municipalities struggling amid pandemic

Meanwhile, provinces are continuing to loosen their pandemic restrictions.

British Columbia parents can now send their children back to school part-time.

Most kindergarten to Grade 5 students will go to school half time, while Grades 6 to 12 will attend classes about one day a week.

Manitoba is easing its ban on care home visits. Community centres, seniors clubs, fitness clubs, dine-in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, pools, amateur sports and recreation programs can also reopen with limits on customer capacity and rules for physical distancing.

Film productions are being allowed to resume and a ban on non-essential travel to the province’s north is being eased.

In Ontario, drive-in movie theatres and batting cages were allowed to reopen Sunday, and campers can now return to provincial parks, with stipulations.

Prince Edward Island is allowing in-house dining as well as the reopening of child-care centres and libraries. Also allowed are outdoor visits with residents at long-term care homes, certain recreational and sporting activities and gatherings of up to 15 people indoors and 20 outdoors.

Twenty nine of Canada’s 48 national parks were also accessible for day use as of Monday.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press


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