Sheltering in Place During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A Month of Sheltering In Place

Even though I'm Canadian, I've long preferred the American expressions for things. A "furlough" is the temporary leave of absence that employees don't choose, and in recent times has referred to employees during government shutdowns in the United States. I think "donut" is a funnier way to spell doughnut, which is the Canadian spelling. And "shelter in place" is a term I learned during the days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and is my preferred term for "stay at home" or "lockdown" during the COVID-19 pandemic.1

My first day of working from home full time was March 13th, a month ago today. My manager knew which way the wind was blowing, and beat the wider company's order to work from home by a week. Our organization, Customer Service, has a lot of experience working from home, as many of us working from home once a week before the pandemic to begin with, plus others on my team not located in Toronto or Boston had their home office setup already.

I find myself well-placed for this. I've tried to avoid the words "privileged" or "lucky" because, while undeniable, they don't fully account for decisions I made in the four years of living in Toronto. One of them was to establish a space in my apartment for working. Another was to start the habit of buying in bulk for necessities and get them delivered on a regular basis. A third decision was to learn how to cook for myself. In a previous life, I ate out tremendously, and knew how to cook maybe one meal that wasn't macaroni & cheese. Now, my fridge is half full of ingredients to cook (with deliveries each week) and half full with leftovers. (The third half is taken up by beer.) Twentysomething Richard would marvel at the full fridge and the fact that I have a full set kitchen utensils that I use regularly.

The other aspect that puts me well-placed is introversion. I've overheard people on the street say it has been hard for them as an extrovert to have to stay home all day and not have an office to go to and the ability to visit friends. On the flip side, however, as the crisis started, I saw the jokes by introverts who mockingly asserted this should be easy for them, since they were used to being alone and now get to do it all the time. I had a hard time with those jokes.

Introversion (being comfortable with being alone) is not the same thing as shyness (anxiety about establishing new relationships and maintaining existing ones). In the first couple of weeks, my social anxiety took a back seat to anxiety about the pandemic. I found that frustrating because, due to an overly anxious Valentines Day, I resolved to restart the work I had done about the social anxiety. I'm less anxious about the pandemic after considering what I have control over, such as washing my hands, staying away from crowds, "s o c i a l  d i s t a n c i n g" (which sounds funnier when said ominously), and muting keywords related to The Virus on Twitter. I've also accepted I don't have control over when we will sufficiently flattened the curve, or when therapies or a vaccine become available. I've done and will continue to do everything health authorities have asked of me, all the while keeping an eye on the impact to civil liberties.2 The improving weather will be a test for Canada's resolve to stay away from crowds or travel unnecessarily. It will test my resolve. Now that pandemic anxiety has subsided, it won't be easy to work on my social anxiety, as there the number of social situations in which I meet new people are going to be few and far between. I can still work on the feelings associated with it, though.

Other aspects of my current life that have me well-placed:

  • Two bookshelves full of books and DVDs, at least a quarter of them unread and unwatched, and a long-enough watchlist.
  • Friends and family who not only check on me but care about me
  • A job which keeps me busy during the day, and that I can effortlessly do remotely, with a reduced cost of living (which I haven't fully understood) and savings that make it possible for me to donate to food banks.

I'm grieving for a lot of things as a result of this: the quiet that now surrounds my apartment, making downtown Toronto feel like a small town; having to work from home when I moved here so I could work in an office; no in-person gatherings of any kind; the oxygen that the crisis sucked out of the news and conversations; travel plans I've had to cancel and visits by family that are a lot less certain now. The opportunity is in time gained. I don't plan on starting any new hobbies, but rather jump-starting old ones, like synthesizers and running.

Walking and exercising outside hasn't been cancelled. Cooking isn't cancelled. The economy collapsed but Canada's social safety net kicked into overdrive. Medical science around the world has been put on hold to work almost exclusively on one problem. People in Toronto, as they so often do, are more or less coming together. My balcony hasn't been cancelled. So I'm still optimistic in the ethic sense of the word. We'll get through this because we, at least in Canada, are embracing the challenge, and when we embrace the challenge, our track record is very good.


  1. I also liked "shutdown" for a while, seeing as how we weren't locked in our homes, but rather anything that involved lingering, such as restaurants or concert venues or libraries or art galleries, were shut down. "Shelter in place" quickly replaced that in my mind, though. ↩︎

  2. I'm signing up for decentralized privacy-preserving proximity tracing the day it becomes available. ↩︎

Two Months of Sheltering in Place

The weeks have gone by a lot faster these past 30 days than the first 30 days. Toronto is slowly loosening it’s restrictions, allowing curbside pickup from retail stores, though all restaurants are still open only for delivery or pickup. So far none of the restaurants I get food from have closed permanently, though I don’t have a lot of hope for the diner across the street from me. I take a walk each day, weather permitting, go grocery shopping for snacks once a week, and as of today, I finally have masks that fit me. A family friend, Ruby, made them for not just our whole family, but my sister’s in-laws as well. We call them our Ruby Masks. It was a heartwarming gesture, one I've seen friends on social media gush about as well when their friends make them masks. I don't know if we're all in this together, but a lot of people are stepping up.

My task list is just as long as it was before the pandemic. If I've said "I'm too busy to do [xyz]," well, that wasn't the reason. I watch more movies than usual, with Saturday having become movie night with co-workers. We stream it over one of the video chat services, and we make up for the low quality with camaraderie during the film. There’s a demand for a service like this, even in a post-pandemic world, or a world in which movie theatres still exist, because of the distributed nature of teams and friends. A browser plugin won’t cut it.

The weather is warming up, and even in a cold May, I’m out on the balcony in the sunlight. I went on my first bike ride of the pandemic to Trinity Bellwoods Park on a warm Saturday, which was followed by a week of cold weather. That all changed this week. I can finally drop my parka off at the dry cleaner.

I've taken two streetcar trips, both of which were back from a computer repair place, having walked to get there. I took note of the time and ID number of the streetcars, but that has been at least 2 weeks ago. The next streetcar I board, I'll be wearing a mask. I still keep track of every place I go using Foursquare's Swarm. While before the pandemic it was a game, the winner getting more points based on how many places they visit, now it has taken on the sombre task of logging where I was in case I need to retrace my steps up to 14 days later.

All concerts I had tickets for to this point have been either cancelled or postponed. I expect the same of June concerts, and any concert happening this year. I know why sports leagues have not cancelled their seasons (they traffic in optimism), though it's all but certain no games will be shown in front of live crowds in North America in 2020.

It's easy to rationalize away the things I miss. "Restaurants weren't such a great experience anyway." "Concerts always had annoyances that I don't miss." "Museums are boring." But I'll go to them when they re-open, taking any precautions that's asked of me. I'm still optimistic that we will get to enjoy what we enjoyed before the pandemic, just in a different way.

Three Months of Sheltering in Place

Ontario has only flattened the curve, and it has reached a plateau. I would have more confidence in the approach Canada's second largest (and therefore second greatest) province took if we've increased hospital resources if we need to accommodate a rise in cases, but I don't have a close enough read on that. So far the large outdoor gatherings that finger-wavers thought would lead to spikes have been benign, but I expect a second wave sometime in the colder months when we spend a larger amount of our day indoors. As long as we've developed runbooks and we've increased resources available for when (not if) the second wave hits, I'm not too worried about the strain on our health care system. Canada's neighbour to the south, that I'm not so sure about.

The Ontario government has split the province into two regions, which is to say The Greater Toronto Area (which I cal Ontario 1) and outside the GTA (Ontario 2). I largely support the move since the province is too big (and therefore too great) to administer as one unit in a situation like this, but I worry since I've in the region that isn't opening up as much as the other region. I've taken to calling it "loosening up" since that has been my feeling of the last two weeks. The reasons for that are:

  • I get beer delivered rather than pick it up at the LCBO, a process which has made it a lot easier to drink every craft beer made in Ontario. If I was drinking only on weekends or on nights before a holiday, in order to cut down on the next day's brain fog. The pandemic changed that habit to about a beer a day. Only one on days before a workday, though. This is only to take the edge off, not to drown my sorrows.
  • The City of Toronto has opened some of its major streets as activeways for people wanting to get some exercise and maintain physical distance on weekends. I don't expect the Lakeshore Boulevard Activeway to be permanent, or at least not open to cyclists and whatnot in the colder months, but it's a big hit, and I hope they learn something from it for next year's warmer months, pandemic or no pandemic.
  • Businesses re-opening and the possibility of increased ability to do things if we wear a face covering (which I'm on board with), even if it means no concerts or street festivals for a little while. I'm trying not to rationalize not being able to do things ("I didn't like [x] anyway"), but it has given me the opportunity to reflect on what I miss and what I don't miss.

We're getting there. The months of May and now June have passed faster than the months of March and April. I still have optimism about treatments and a vaccine, if only because the survival of the current system depends on it. As we've seen with the rise in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it has long been obvious that the current system was not tenable for a very large portion of North American population. Due to the confluence of the pandemic, the resulting furloughs and layoffs, the slow, painful, agonizing death of a Black man at the hands (or, rather, the knee) of police caught on camera in Minneapolis, the resulting fall in popularity of an already-unpopular President, the overdue removal of monuments celebrating the lost effort to conserve slavery, the painful and welcome realization that Canada's institutions are not necessarily less racist than those of the United States, hopefully a new system (which still welcomes treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19) will take its place so both the United States and Canada can truly emerge better for having gone through this pandemic.

4 Months of Sheltering in Place

The one thing that has kept me going, from the gloomiest times in March of this year, is that time marches forward no matter what. I look at my Timehop recap of where I went and what I said on this day in previous years on a daily basis, the years seem both so long ago and like it was yesterday. Either way, time will its way, and this too shall one day be in the past. I never lost track of what day it was, thanks to still having a job. (Co-workers lost track of what weekday it was, so I'm not saying continuing to work and have a weekend was the only reason.) I stuck to my Sunday routine and did everything I was allowed to do while taking all the precautions asked of me.) I've read the various articles about experiencing time differently, and that could be true for March and parts of April. That said, May, and especially June, went by about as quickly as they do outside of a pandemic. I experienced a loosening up from the pandemic anxiety as stores opened up again (or closed for good), and restaurants started offering patio service. My beloved diner even came through with a re-opening, first with takeout and then with patio service, which I take advantage of on Saturdays, weather permitting. While planning ahead has been more difficult (no plane travel until at least Christmas, for example), I have been taking it 2 weeks at a time, and that has worked well for my peace of mind.

The other ideas that keep me calm come from an interview with epedimiologist Larry Brilliant. From that I get the confidence there will be a vaccine. (Also a treatment for those that, rolling my eyes here, choose not to take the vaccine.) this quote near the end stands out: “Everybody needs to remember: This is not a zombie apocalypse. It's not a mass extinction event.” To my knowledge there's no obvious treatment, but our knowledge of the virus grows, and, if they're not 100% guarantees, I have yet to hear someone say treatment will definitely never come and that a vaccine is impossible. All signs point to the scientific community coming to a full understanding of the virus this year.

Also encouraging has been that my office has opened up. I have the benefit of living in downtown Toronto, and the office is a 12-minute bike ride away. I'm only comfortable going in twice a week, mainly to get a break from the construction noise across the street from my apartment and to sit in a comfortable chair, and not taking transit to get there. I don't have a plan for the colder months other than working from home, though generally speaking, Toronto has been good about clearing the bike lanes of snow.

I haven’t taken up any new hobbies or restarted many old ones. I have been biking for leisure as much as possible, and have just started doing self-guided architectural tours of Toronto. I’ve been cooking at about the same frequency, but double the amount each time. That and gaming take up most of my time, and reading books has come to be a habit again. I'm still listening to full albums like I had started a few years ago.

I have been spending a lot of time on my balcony. So much so that I have dinner out there regularly, and I now have a storage box so that I make less frequent trips to get things.

In the box I have paper towel, a glass or two, placemats, cutlery, and earplugs for the times I want to have breakfast or lunch out there when construction across the street is happening. I expect to be able to stay out there through September, and possibly October if warmer weather prevails that long. Because of how well things have gone these four months, the only thing I have to plan for is cold weather during lineups to the grocery store, and so far trips have been minimal because I cook using meal kits that are delivered to me weekly.

I've also been making a number of fixes to this blog. It's been nice getting back into the depths of Drupal 7 again, which has had some life breathed into it recently. I've restored the following sections: my bookmarks, no longer syndicated from anywhere; my Flickr photos, which will start being syndicated here shortly, and the station pages of my SkyTrain Explorer section. This is all in anticipation of an upgrade to Drupal 8, though there's at least two years until I have to do that.

5 Months of Sheltering in Place

I'm still riding bikes, and still going to the office once or twice a week. I bought a sturdy lawn chair so I could sit in the park next to my building. I reasoned that it would be a useful thing to have post-pandemic as well. I'm otherwise sheltering in place because there’s no events to attend. At least there are still places to go. I remain optimistic that we'll get to the other side of this pandemic, but I'm also getting used to the idea of not attending any more events in person in the year 2020.

Toronto mandated masks inside public places (and common areas of private places), and has been steadily re-opening businesses, especially restaurants for dining in. Dining solo isn't such a great experience to begin with, but it adds back vibrancy to the city streets. During the pandemic, wearing a mask is the price to pay to go to stores, and that's a fairly small price. I don't think I'm going to like doing it for more than an hour at a time, though, which may come into play if I go on a group day-trip, something I'm considering as a way to get out of town for a few hours.

In an article where the headline signalled pessimism, an interview with Bill Gates in Wired actually gives more hope:

for the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022. That is only because of the scale of the innovation that’s taking place. Now whenever we get this done, we will have lost many years in malaria and polio and HIV and the indebtedness of countries of all sizes and instability. It’ll take you years beyond that before you’d even get back to where you were at the start of 2020. It’s not World War I or World War II, but it is in that order of magnitude as a negative shock to the system.

(Although the criticism is that it relies too heavily on the idea that innovation will save us when there are established practices for this sort of thing.)

I'm still single, and while this year started off with a date (and for once, a second date), while dating apps reported a surge in signups, I can't report increased matches, so I decided to take all of August off. It was always time-consuming to spend an hour swiping in the hopes of making a match, and then trying to think of something original but sincere and getting to what I call the "values conversation" (i.e. getting beyond small talk to discuss what each other wants in a relationship). Matches seemed to get fewer and further between, so I'm taking the hint and re-tooling in that department.

I haven't learned any new skills or read many books during the shutdown period. Every time I start to feel bad about that, I recall that I've been cooking a lot, writing in my blog more, sitting on my balcony and in the park more, and focussing on learning how to relax, something I'm not sure I've experienced in a while. I have started learning Chinese again, using the Duolingo app, and recalling my time in university, the courses I enjoyed the most were those that assigned short essays based on course readings, i.e. no research outside of the texts already suggested. I'm looking to take such a course again, possibly in a field new to me. One that isn't computers (self-learner) or political science (my university major).

6 Months of Sheltering in Place

Summer is almost over. I’ve so far weathered the pandemic by continuing to have a job, already having made a bulk purchase in what was temporarily in short supply, and by keeping active by biking the Lakeshore Boulevard Activeway. The office opening up in July gave me respite from the construction across the street. I bike there and back once or twice a week, partly for a change of scenery and food options, but mostly for some peace and quiet.

Winter is coming, but not before Toronto’s typically magical autumn. I tried to plan a day trip out of the city, but I ultimately couldn’t think of what I’d do once I'd arrive at my destination. A boat trip to Toronto Islands soothed the soul in July, and I have some upcoming vacation where I hope to recapture that feeling. The farthest east I've been has been the office, the fathest north I've been is College St., and the farthest west I've been is Windemere Ave. and Lakeshore Drive W. (one end of the aforementioned Lakeshore Boulevard Activeway). I'm hopeful the City of Toronto will continue to encourage active use of the city while the second phase of the pandemic (acceptance of possible shutdowns if cases surge too fast) before the next phase (the safe introduction of a vaccine).

My main worry about the pandemic was not so much getting the disease but the boredom of events not going forward. Only by knowing what we know now (wearing a mask if you can't physically distance, going outside is relatively safe) do I think some of Toronto events could take place. I'm thinking mostly of one of Toronto's best events, Nuit Blanche, where the city becomes an outdoor art gallery and is celebrated now by all 4 corners of it. I'm hopeful an in-person event can be held next October, 13 months from now, instead of this year's online-only event.

I've more or less avoided virtual events. Concerts and movies aren't the same on the smaller screen and my lesser sound systems. I've helped organize an event normally held in person, so I understand the amount of work that goes into it, and the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto's upcoming premier event, Thorrablót, will be online-only as well. In-person events is a prime reason I live in a city, and the hope that they'll return have me staying put until we enter the vaccine phase of the pandemic. If I was worried Toronto had turned into a quiet small town during the initial emergency phase of the pandemic, car traffic has returned, restaurants are open (in limited capacity), people are walking the street (masked and unmasked), so big-city life is making an attempt at a return, at least.

I continue to have questions about Canada's, Ontario's, and Toronto's handling of the pandemic. Are hospitals at increased capacity if they have to accommodate a sustained surge? Are better treatments on the way? When the vaccine is approved in Canada, how will health units deliver it? Will I be able to fly home to British Columbia to visit family for Christmas?

In the meantime, I'm making plans to take a course or two in case boredom sets in again. I will miss the deadline for the fall semester of continuing education courses, though the course I stumbled into for this season will be about an unlikely subject: myself. I hope to one day get a chance to talk about that.

7 Months of Sheltering in Place

Since last time I checked in, I had a couple of days of vacation in the same week, meaning two 3-day weekends in a row. I spent one of those days on Toronto Islands again. I played several location-based games, and even ground-truthed a couple of microconfluences. The other day I kept open in case I was needed for helping with an online event the Icelandic Canadian Club held. It was a great success!

I've gotten the hang of wearing a mask, and most shops are open and tensions are a lot lower than they were up until about June. I didn't need to line up outside of a grocery store the few times I needed to go, not that I spent a lot of time waiting to get in. Winter is coming, and I hear people being worried about having to stay outside in the cold before getting provisions, but I don't anticipate that being a problem. I'm more comfortable with buying things again, though almost all online. I recently looked at my new year's intentions for 2020, and other than a big trip that I never got too deep into planning, I've more or less done everything I set out to do this year. That's been somewhat of a surprise.

In late September, I dined in a few times, once at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, another couple of times at the diner across the street from me. Up until then, I had dined exclusively at my apartment (either my own cooking or takeout), or the "balcony" outside the diner across the street. Other than those cases dining at the restaurant on Toronto Islands (both times outside), I did not dine at restaurants. Dining alone is bad enough to begin with. Dining alone and having my guard up was worse.

The gods smiled on me, and while I approached the bike rides along the Lakeshore Boulevard Activeway of September 26th and the 28th as the last of the year, the City of Toronto extended them into October. There are noticeably fewer people on the roads, but Ontario announced increased restrictions on gatherings, calling it Modified Stage 2. That meant no dining indoors at restaurants, and gyms closed. I don't go to gyms, but I know it's a part of a lot of people's lives. Extending ActiveTO was the right move, and I'm looking forward to hearing what's in store for the colder months so that I can stay active. I've lost count of how many times I've ridden along the Activeway, and update my long Twitter thread about it each time.

The course about me started a couple of weeks ago, and it's going well so far, having made my way through 4 workbooks already. I've registered for an American literature course in March, which optimistically states is an in-person course. I anticipate it being held online, even if a vaccine is available.

Throughout the pandemic, I've never felt days melting into others like some people have felt. It doesn't feel like an extension of March, and having a job there I work Monday to Friday, weekends felt like weekends. At work, I would grace Wednesdays with the "What a week, huh?" meme from 30 Rock, but I had to suspend the running joke because it had lost its pre-pandemic edge. I hope to return to days where I can drop the image macro in chat again.