TORONTO -- Although provinces across the country have already begun lifting lockdown measures in varying degrees, public health officials continue to prescribe diligent handwashing and persistent physical distancing in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

But last weekend’s warm weather, along with the recent opening of various city parks and amenities, made it difficult for residents in Ontario to keep their distance from one another. This set the scene for a busy Saturday afternoon at Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park, where an estimated 10,000 people were gathered.

“I only looked at a few of the photos and I actually thought they must’ve been stock photos from before the pandemic,” Kerry Bowman, bioethicist and professor at the University of Toronto, told over the phone on Monday. “They looked like something you’d see last summer.”

Bowman says part of the reason for this behaviour lies in something called "isolation fatigue," which he describes as a psychologically-based restlessness. Some people, he explains, have had enough of being physically isolated and want to begin interacting with the outside world again.

“We seem to be at a bit of a tipping point where people have been isolated for so long that they really want to get out there,” he said. “As we reached about the nine or ten-week point, people began to feel satiated, and that’s lining up with warm weather.”

Bowman describes what is known as the optimal arousal theory – the idea that people continuously need something to look forward to. The problem with this, he says, is that the longer lockdown measures are in place, the greater the chances that rules such as maintaining physical distance will be broken.

“Having things to look forward to is a natural human process that we all live by – the anticipation of events are very psychologically important to all of us,” he explained. “Before all this, potentially you had a dinner on a weekend [or] a vacation coming up…all of that’s fallen off – you don’t even have a sports game you can watch anymore.”

According to a press release, the City of Toronto received 167 complaints related to park use and physical distancing on May 22 – a figure described as “a notable increase” compared to what the city has seen in recent weeks.

Officers forming part of Toronto’s COVID-19 Enforcement Team were said to have witnessed “unruly behaviour” in the form of public intoxication and crowding. According to the city, additional officers were deployed to parks where these behaviours were prevalent, including Trinity Bellwoods.

But this was not enough to stop thousands from congregating at the well-known public park. The behaviour prompted commentary from several government and health officials who voiced their concern.

Late Saturday night, Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted, “It’s unfortunate and extremely disappointing that so many gathered in Trinity Bellwoods to flaunt the advice of our public health professionals.”

In another tweet, the mayor explained those at the park were “putting their own health at risk” and could be responsible for “the kind of setback we are trying hard to avoid.”

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa also addressed the actions taken by numerous residents over the weekend, calling it “dangerous” and “selfish” in a tweet.

While Bowman acknowledges that the behaviour can be seen as selfish, he holds short of calling it that himself.

This behaviour, he says, is tied to a social contract between the people and government leaders. He points to the possibility that leaders may not be holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to putting in place further measures to address the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

“Canadians and Ontarians have given up a lot in terms of personal freedom and a lot of people’s lives have been really gutted by this, financially and socially,” he explained. “Our [provincial] leadership has really not held up with their end of the bargain in terms of using this time to get up to speed on extensive testing [and] contact tracing.

“I’m not justifying what happened at Trinity Bellwoods…but I cannot help but wonder if people don’t see this as a fair contract.”

He describes Ontario’s response to the pandemic thus far as “a system that’s really not working well.” Government officials in Ontario, for example, only recently indicated that it was taking steps to develop contact tracing and tracking. While the province is encouraging residents to get tested for COVID-19, it has yet to release a concrete testing strategy.

Part of the solution involves putting these measures in place, says Bowman, as well as making more public space available to residents. He points specifically to opening up public access to areas near High Park and Lakeshore.

“I think what people did is absolutely and categorically wrong, there’s no question about it,” he said. “But I also think our leaders have to consider the social realities that we’re living in under this pandemic.”

Bowman explains it’s likely that so many people congregated in Trinity Bellwoods Park because they had nowhere else to go. He says that if the city had made more public space available for people to go on walks or have picnics, this likely would have meant fewer people in this one park alone.

“It wouldn't have prevented this but it may have contributed in a positive way to reduce the numbers of [people at Trinity Bellwoods Park],” he said. “I think a greater focus on open public spaces would have really helped.”

With regards to the future, Bowman says he is weary of what’s to come, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario continues to climb.

On Sunday, the province reported 460 new cases of the novel coronavirus – the fourth day in a row where number have been above 400.

“What that means is at least in the more populated provinces, the increased opening up is going to be delayed because the numbers are not getting better,” he said. “It could’ve been a couple of weeks – it’s now likely going to be at least a month.

“We’ve got to figure this out and I’m hoping Trinity Bellwoods [Park] will be a wakeup call.”