The above photo, taken in Toronto’s Pearson airport, merits some explanation. When I crossed customs back into the U.S. on Aug. 10, 2021, I was one of two people doing so. When I arrived at the terminal, composed of 20 gates, I was one of about 25 people in the entire terminal. Pearson is Canada’s largest and biggest airport.)
A few minutes ago, in the wake of the mask mandate for schools, I had a friend text me about how the pandemic was being handled in Canada. I just returned from a trip home after a year and a half and, yes, it sure is a different place than when I left it. Because my friend was curious about what things are like, I thought you might be too, so I decided to share some of what I witnessed.
My reintroduction to Canada was at the Toronto airport, where I was promptly guided to customs. Customs in Toronto is usually a bit of a nightmare, but tack on a pandemic to the mix and it was definitely a zoo. You have to fill out a special form on an app called ArriveCan before you can enter and you must have a negative Covid test and paperwork that shows your double vaccination. It took me about two hours to get through customs and security, upon which I was met with three people wearing full PPE who handed me a Covid test. I had 24 hours to complete it.
My flight was badly delayed, so I arrived home in Winnipeg to an empty airport. As I was walking to baggage claim, the only sign I saw of the pandemic was a picture on the wall of two people with a polar bear standing between them. “Please practice social distancing,” it said. “Stay one polar bear apart.”
The next morning, I had to conduct my test. I signed in online and, before I knew it, I was having a telehealth appointment with a nurse on the other end directing me how deep to insert the swab. I put the test in a bag for a courier to pick up the next day.
I had gifts to buy for friends, so I went to the bookstore McNally Robinson. Before I pushed open the door, I saw a sign that said masks were required; there was a provincial mask mandate in place until Aug. 7. I quickly realized that Manitobans take the mask mandate very seriously. In fact, for the duration of my trip, I only saw one person not wearing a mask in public.
At lunch that first day, we sat down at my beloved Bernstein’s deli. The booths are now separated with plexiglass walls, as they are in many places here too, but when the waitress came to our table, she asked for our names and phone numbers. I hadn’t seen that before; it’s meant to help with contact tracing.
Over the course of the pandemic, Manitoba has had 57,923 cases of Covid-19 and 1,183 deaths. The province has a population of 1.369 million people. As of Aug. 12, its positivity rate is 2.8 percent. Also as of Aug. 12, 80.6 percent of eligible Manitobans (anyone over 12 years of age) had received one vaccine dose and 73.2 percent had received two doses. There were 3,983 doses scheduled to be administered on Aug. 12, so those percentages continue to climb.
All of these numbers come from gov.mb.ca, the official government website. To see Kentucky numbers, click here.
While Manitoba has had curfews, fines, mask mandates and several lockdowns in place over the course of the pandemic, things came to a head at the end of May 2021. Then, the virus was spreading faster in Manitoba than in any other province or state in Canada, the United States or Mexico.
At the time, vaccine availability was still very meagre. My parents, in their mid-70s, only received their second dose in mid-June. My brother and sister-in-law received their first doses in May, but not until they’d already had Covid. My sister-in-law Jennie, a teacher, presumably got Covid from a student; vaccine distribution was based solely on age, not exposure potential, so teachers were not prioritized.
In several provinces, including Manitoba, all students in grades four to 12 had to wear masks last year. In other provinces, like Ontario, students in grades 1 to 12 wore masks. No word yet on if those rules will change when the new school year resumes after Labor Day. I will say that my best friend Kristin’s kids had to wear masks at all times during camps this summer, unless they were outside.
To get back into the U.S., you must have the results of a negative Covid-19 test with you. When I went to get tested, I was the only person at the drive-thru clinic. I didn’t have an appointment either. I went two days in a row in case my test results took a while (you must have a negative Covid test within three days of travel). There was one car in front of me that second time.
Given that I had scrambled to even get an appointment for a test in Somerset, that experience definitely drove home that we in Kentucky are living a different reality than Manitobans right now.
And that, repeatedly, is how I felt when I was in Canada. I felt like I was living on a different planet. To be able to put down the stress of Covid for a few days and feel safe knowing people were doing their utmost to protect each other was a truly glorious feeling. To know my family is safe makes being away from them so much easier.
Everyone has their own decisions to make about Covid-19. But, blissfully away from the noise of politics, I witnessed what happens in a place with high vaccination rates and excellent mask compliance. Simply, you get your life back.