Canadians aren't staying home as much as they did during the first wave, data shows
TORONTO -- COVID-19 activity in Canada is at its highest level yet, but it appears Canadians are still living as if it's the tail end of the first wave.
The latest data from Google and Apple suggests that Canadians are spending about as much time at home, in workplaces and visiting stores as they were last May, even though the average daily number of new COVID-19 cases is now more than six times what it was then.
Google has been tracking population-level movement trends since last February by comparing the amount of time its users spend in various locations to pre-pandemic levels.
According to its latest Community Mobility Report for Canada, Canadians spent between 17 and 19 per cent more time at home during the first week of January than they did before the pandemic.
If that doesn't sound like a lot, keep in mind that the time-at-home increase rarely topped 10 per cent during August and September. Even at the peak of the first wave, it almost never exceeded 25 per cent.
Last week's pattern was more in line with mid-May 2020, when the number of daily new cases across Canada first fell below 1,500 – a total Ontario and Quebec now each exceed on their own every day.
Time spent at home is time not spent in public, and Google's other metrics also show that while Canadians are adjusting their lifestyles in the face of escalating COVID-19 spread, it isn't happening to the extent it was during the first wave.
Time spent on public transit last week was the least seen since last May, according to Google, while time spent in workplaces was at its lowest level since last summer – but still above where it was even after the first wave ended.
Workplaces are considered a major driver of current COVID-19 spread in many parts of the country, in part because some people cannot afford to stay home from work even when they know they are risking their health by going in.
Dr. Lisa Salamon, a Toronto-based emergency room doctor, told CTV's Your Morning on Tuesday that she would like to see more governments do more to restrict workplaces from opening in areas where case counts are rising.
"We need to go back to what we did in wave one: only essential workplaces can be open," she said.
"I think there are a lot of workplaces that are open right now that should be closed, or should [have] people working from home."
Retail foot traffic is also dying down, based on Google's reporting, albeit not as much as it did last spring. Its data on time spent in Canadian grocery stories and pharmacies shows a decrease of about 10 per cent from the baseline, putting it in line with the final weeks of the first wave.
However, that decrease only came after a significant spike in activity over the holidays. According to Google's data, Dec. 23 brought a bigger increase in traffic to grocery stores and pharmacies nationwidethan any other day since the pandemic began. Dec. 24 is third on that list; sandwiched between them is March 13 – the day the federal government advised Canadians not to leave the country, exacerbating a surge of panic-buying that was already underway.
Time spent in restaurants and other service-industry businesses, meanwhile, came out of the holiday period 30 per cent below the pre-pandemic average – again, a similar level to that of last May.
Dr. Brian Conway, the president and medical direction of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, told CTV News Channel on Monday that the current state of COVID-19 in many parts of the country should be giving Canadians more reason to pause before venturing outside.
"Once there is high-level community-based spread, any environment where people are close together for any period of time becomes a risky environment," he said.
Google is not the only major tech player tracking Canadians' collective movements during the pandemic.
Apple issues Mobility Trends Reports based on requests for directions in Apple Maps. Its data for last week shows a similar pattern to Google's: declining activity coming out of the holiday period, with the rate of requests essentially equal to what it was at the end of the first wave.
Most major cities follow this pattern, although there is a clear exception in Halifax, where the post-holiday decline has not been as steep, and Apple is reporting similar activity levels to late June 2020. This matches up with Google's data for Nova Scotia, which shows more workplace activity and less home activity than at any point in the spring or summer.
The other blip in the national pattern is in British Columbia, where Google does not show any significant post-holiday changes in behaviours. Time spent at home and in workplaces there has been consistent for the past two months, with noticeably more time spent at work and less at home than was the case last spring.