Canadians are already on the move as restrictions slowly lift, data suggests
TORONTO -- Stay home. Stay home. Stay home.
That's been the consistent plea from public health authorities for nearly two months now.
Stay home to avoid catching COVID-19. Stay home to avoid spreading it. Stay home to stay healthy.
The message seems to have landed. Workplaces and public spaces have closed, leaving the streets of even Canada's biggest cities looking like virtual ghost towns at times.
But that can only last so long, right? Surely stir-crazy Canadians will eventually look at the generally declining numbers of new COVID-19 cases and conclude that it must be safe to venture outside, just a little bit, even if the government is saying otherwise? Especially once blustery spring weather is replaced by warm, sunny summer?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to think so. On Thursday, in announcing that some national parks will be reopened June 1, Trudeau seemed to suggest that the decision was in part based on getting ahead of expected behaviours.
"We know that you can't prevent Canadians from going outside when the weather is nice," he said.
The latest data available from two tech giants' tracking of Canadians' movements during the pandemic indicates that the prime minister may be correct in that assessment.
Google has been maintaining mobility reports for many countries during the pandemic. The reports are compiled based on data from Google users who allow the company to track the locations they visit and keep a log of them.
The company's latest report for Canada, which contains data up to May 7, shows that while Canadians are spending far less time at stores, offices and transit stations than they were before the pandemic, the numbers are slowly inching back to the pre-pandemic normal.
In retail and recreation – a category that includes restaurants, shopping malls, libraries and theatres, among other destinations – the amount of time logged by Canadians in mid-April was approximately 50 per cent below what it was before the pandemic. By early May, the drop was closer to 40 per cent.
Canadians are also, based on Google data, spending more time in grocery stores, pharmacies, workplaces and transit stations than they were even a month ago, and slightly less time in their homes.
The most telling statistic, though, might be the amount of time spent in parks. That figure was near or below the pre-pandemic baseline for several weeks, reaching a low of nearly negative 40 per cent in early April. It shot up as soon as May hit. On May 7 – the last day for which data is available – Canadians spent 32 per cent more time in parks than they did before the pandemic, according to Google.
Some of that can be explained by loosening restrictions in certain parts of the countries. Time spent in parks on May 7 was the most abnormally high in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, both of which have started reopening their normal societies. In Ontario, which has been slower to reopen, Google reports that park usage remains closer to pre-pandemic (i.e. winter) levels.
Apple has a different method for estimating movement patterns during the pandemic. Its Mobility Trends Reports compare current search volumes in Apple Maps for driving, walking and transit directions to pre-pandemic levels, on the assumption that fewer users asking for directions correlates with fewer people using each method of transit.
According to Apple's data, the number of routing requests from Canada fell sharply in the second half of March and bottomed out around Easter weekend. There have been steady week-by-week increases since then, with May 8 bringing the highest search numbers since the pandemic began. On that day, requests for driving directions were at 85 per cent of their usual levels, and requests for walking directions at 76 per cent of their usual levels. Both of these numbers were regularly around 50 per cent in early April.
Public transit directions continue to lag well behind, having risen from lows of 18 per cent in early April to pandemic-era highs of 25 per cent last week.
Based on the trends in Apple's data, it is entirely possible that requests for walking and driving directions could be back in the range of their usual levels as soon as this weekend.
This may help explain why Trudeau followed his comment that nobody can stop Canadians from enjoying nice weather with this: "You just have to help them do it safely. Continue to impress upon them the need for physical distancing. Recognize that certain areas are more vulnerable than others."
From the prime minister, at least, it seems the message may be shifting from "stay home" to "stay safe."