New data suggests that more than 500 COVID-19 infections in Canada have been linked to public venues including stores, bars, restaurants, daycares and schools since the beginning of July as more businesses continue to reopen and restrictions are eased.
New numbers released on Monday by Project Pandemic report that at least 148 different stores, restaurants, bars, schools, daycares, and other public spaces have issued warnings about potential exposure to the virus.
Since July 4, the data found that 505 individual coronavirus infections were reported in connection with those public venues in 61 cities across seven provinces.
Project Pandemic is a collaborative mapping effort led by the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Montreal's Concordia University. The project employs reporters from journalism schools across Canada along with traditional news media organizations such as CTV News to collect data about the coronavirus pandemic and to use analysis tools to allow a clearer picture of where the COVID-19 disease has spread.
While more than 500 infections may seem like a lot, infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CTVNews.ca that these numbers are expected.
"Those numbers are not really surprising. We see a few outbreaks associated with restaurants and bars. There has been a few, but really a small number of transmission, in other places like for example grocery stores or liquor stores," Bogoch said in a phone interview on Monday. "It's a good reflection of where some, but not all, of the virus is being transmitted in Canada."
According to the new data, more than half of the recent infections involved food sales, with potential exposure to the virus reported at 85 grocery stores, liquor stores and restaurants. There were also at least eight reports of infections and exposures at day camps, eight at schools and daycares, and three at parks and pools.
Project Pandemic noted that the numbers are not a comprehensive dataset and said in a press release that it is likely that there may have been more exposure warnings and subsequent infection than those reported.
The data found that places most affected by potential exposure and infections include Loblaw grocery chains such as No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore and Shoppers Drug Mart throughout cities in Ontario and Alberta. Exposure warnings were also issued for some of Loblaw's Provigo stores in Montreal.
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, Loblaw said it continues to follow public health guidance on COVID-19 and has teams "working around the clock" to monitor the needs of customers and employees "as the situation continues to evolve."
"With the community spread of COVID-19, it's unfortunate but probable that some stores will be affected. That's why we have invested heavily since the beginning of the pandemic to enhance our sanitization and protections as well as enforcing social distancing practices in stores since," the statement read.
Other grocery stores affected included Walmart and IGA.
Despite accounting for a number of infections, Bogoch said the risk associated with virus transmission in grocery stores remains low.
"When you think about how many people go into those stores daily, there really are very few cases linked to those settings. Grocery stores are taking great care [in] ensuring people are physically distant, employees in the grocery stores are wearing masks and many places have Plexiglas set up to separate the cashiers from customers," Bogoch explained.
"As long as people adhere to good public health measures, I think we'll continue to see very few cases, transmitted in those settings."
Another retailer that saw in a number of exposure warnings was various SAQ liquor store locations across Quebec with exposures reported in at least 10 different stores and depots.
In a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca, an SAQ spokesperson said its locations have followed the required protocol for confirmed COVID-19 cases including quarantining and self-isolation for those who may have come into close contact with the infected employee.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, our priority is to ensure the health and safety of our employees and our customers. The SAQ has strictly complied with all recommendations issued by public health authorities," the email said.
Bogoch said the main concern of virus transmission continues to be restaurants and bars.
"We know that in indoor environments like restaurants when there's multiple people close together for prolonged periods of time, those are perfect environments for this virus to be transmitted and certainly if the virus is introduced to a setting like that, it would come to no one surprised that we'll see subsequent cases," Bogoch said.
Project Pandemic reported that various restaurants reported outbreaks across Canada however multiple restaurants in Calgary made the list with potential exposure warnings issued for multiple locations of Cactus Club Cafe, The Keg, Fire N Ice Lounge and Village Brewery.
To see fewer outbreaks in these settings, Bogoch said it is up to both restaurant owners and patrons to ensure everyone is following public safety measures. However, that may be easier said than done.
"If restaurants and bars really take the initiative to ensure people can stick to their tables and spread apart, it'll be okay but the likelihood of that happening, we know it's not that high," Bogoch said. "We've seen cases in Canada and elsewhere in the world people go to bars to consume alcohol and, of course, it's just more challenging to adhere to physical distancing in those settings."
Bogoch said this does not mean that Canadians should avoid restaurants, but that patrons and employees must remain vigilant in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"Businesses really have to be set up for success. That means protecting their employees and also protecting their customers. That means creating a safe environment for people to eat and drink. You can have the best laid plans but if they're not adhered to, they're meaningless," he said.
In restaurants, Bogoch said the key to limiting possible exposure is customer adherence to safety measures, but it is the business' responsibility to enforce those measures. However, he added that following public health guidelines is what makes restaurants a challenging environment.
"If the restaurant or bar is set up in a way that is safer and if they really ensure that customers are adhering to the right policies and if customers are vigilant… then it'll be OK. But of course, when we put that into real world settings, we see that many places do that, but some do not," Bogoch said.
"And in the places that are not adhering to these measures, we're seeing outbreaks."
This map from Project Pandemic tracks known cases of COVID-19 across the country. If you can't see the map on your device, go here for the full experience.
Using Esri ArcGIS technology
"Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19" is a national collaboration bringing together journalists and journalism students from news organizations and universities across Canada to gather information as a public service.
The consortium draws on data gathered by governmental health authorities, journalists and the nonprofit platform Flatten.ca. This project is co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists. For the full list of credits, please visit concordia.ca/projectpandemic.