Missing your family and friends? The Province of Ontario is now encouraging people to establish a “social circle” of up to 10 people that they can be in close contact with, but that circle must be exclusive to only that group people. Some health units have been referring to this concept as a “social bubble”.
The move is an effort to support the mental health and well-being of Ontarians, and to help reduce social isolation, particularly for those who live alone.
In a media release following Premier Ford’s daily briefing today, the Province provided five steps for people to follow if they want to establish a social circle:
1. Start with your current circle: the people you live with or who regularly come into your household;
2. If your current circle is under 10 people, you can add members to your circle, including those from another household, family members or friends;
3. Get agreement from everyone that they will join the circle;
4. Keep your social circle safe. Maintain physical distancing with anyone outside of your circle; and
5. Be true to your circle. No one should be part of more than one circle.
These social circles are different from the Province’s recent announcement that it would now allow public social gatherings of up to 10 people—in the latter, people still need to maintain physical distancing of at least two metres. But within your social circle, you could hug, carpool, or share a meal, for example, without staying two metres apart.
People should still avoid close contact with anyone outside of their social circle, and in all cases follow other public health advice like frequent hand-washing and avoiding touching your face.
People who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19—those who work in a healthcare setting, for example—or those at higher risk of severe illness such as people over 70 or those with compromised immune system or other health conditions, may decide not to participate in a social circle, limit the size of their circle, or limit the amount of interaction they have within their circle.
The Province released a step-by-step guide to help people understand social circles and to decide how to form their social circle.
“Ontarians should think of their circles as the people they can touch, hug and come into close contact as we continue our shared fight against COVID-19,” said Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Christine Elliott. “While this is an exciting step forward, every Ontarian should follow the advice provided by our public health experts to ensure they do so safely and in a way that limits the spread of this virus, including and especially by only being part of one circle. We all owe it to each other to act responsibly.”
Here’s an example of how a social circle would work:
Your household of five decides to join a social circle with one set of grandparents (two people) and a neighbour’s household of three people. All 10 of those people must agree that they will not form a social circle with any other family—their close contact remains with only those three households and no one else. Anyone else that all members of each of these three households has contact with must be at a physical distance of at least two metres. None of the three households in this social circle could then decide to have a close-contact visit with a fourth household.
Here’s another, illustrated example from the Province:
“Mila lives on her own. Aside from work she has been staying at home, and has not visited friends or family.
“Mila’s 75-year-old father lives with her sister and brother-in-law. They have not seen Mila since the start of the outbreak as they have been physical distancing from anyone outside of their household as per public health advice.
“Mila’s brother and nephew live on their own. Like the rest of the family they have been self-isolating except for essential trips to the grocery store.
“Mila and the rest of her family can now form a ‘social circle’. This means they can see each other without physical distancing, and can touch, hug, etc. Mila may also help care for her father and family, if needed.”
Anyone who is ill or feeling sick should immediately limit their contact with anyone in their circle, inform the other members of the circle, self-isolate, and seek testing through an assessment centre if they have COVID-19 symptoms. They should also seek testing if they are concerned that they might have been exposed to COVID-19 or be at risk.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said that, “Not only will social circles help to improve people’s mental health and reduce social isolation, they will support rapid case and contact tracing by limiting the number of close contacts, in the event of a case of COVID-19 in that circle.”
In a technical briefing earlier in the day, a Ministry of Health official said that while the concept of social circles extends province-wide, people are most likely to form circles with households in their general area. “If someone wanted to form a circle with someone who was a long way away, then I would wonder whether the contact is really very close. It’s intended for people who could be in close contact on a regular basis. In those situations we would want people to pick a group of up to 10 and stick with that same group… Most of the province has moved on to Stage 2 of the reopening plan and a few parts are still in Stage 1. We certainly don’t encourage people to move from high transmission areas that are still in Stage 1 to lower transmission areas, at least not at this point in the pandemic, but I don’t think that affects the social circle.
“The fact that there are asymptomatic cases is one of the reasons it’s important to not just go out and have contact with everyone in the community and limiting your contact to a social circle, your close contact to a social circle, and maintaining physical distancing with everyone else is one of the ways of reducing transmission when it’s possible that there may be some people who are asymptomatically infectious. So I think that theadvice fits with and acknowledges the fact that asymptomatic infection can occur.”
“At the outset of the pandemic, we had to make the necessary, but difficult decision to ban large public gatherings and strongly advise physical distancing with everyone except immediate household members,” said Premier Ford. “As the public health trends improve and our collective efforts start to pay off, we’re now able to take another step forward today by allowing families and their loved ones to reunite and spend time with one another safely through social circles.”
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