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“Do I think slamming small retail and pushing people to (big) box stores, particularly those attached to shopping mall common areas, is dumb? Yes, I think it’s very dumb,” said David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
He said the probable role of large crowded retail spaces in the spread of COVID-19 is not well documented in Ontario, and added that the court challenge was a welcome development.
“It’s great that this stuff is going through the courts and we can see where they come down on public health restrictions,” Fisman said.
“It’s been abundantly obvious for some time now that the best thing we could do for retail and the economy was really good disease control, proactive versus reactive… And there just hasn’t been an understanding of that at the provincial level.”
Fisman said “closed, close, crowded spaces with continuous exposure appear to pose greatest risk” for the spread of COVID-19, including in stores. However, he said heavy turnover and the way spread is being tracked in Canada, particularly in Ontario, makes it very difficult to determine if cases are occurring in large retail outlets.
“Store clusters are hard to see. But, yes, there are a number of super-spreader events that have occurred (elsewhere in the world) and of course we’ve had grocery store clusters here in Toronto,” he said.
Fisman pointed to an outbreak in a Walmart in the United States as an example, and said there should be more messaging that the virus can spread through small airborne droplets or aerosols — and that poorly fitted or improperly worn masks don’t provide complete protection.
“If you have an aerosolizing event (for example, a bad mask wearer yelling at kid in aisle, pre-symptomatic) and that generates some amount of ‘buoyant’ aerosol, you potentially have a super-spreader event because now you’ve got lots of other folks wandering through that ‘shared air’,” he said.
Fisman said installing QR (contactless quick response) devices at store entrances to collect information about customers, as hotspots in Australia have mandated for hospitality establishments, would allow tracing to be backward-looking and identify more cases and clusters.