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COVID-19: Done properly, night curfews can be helpful in curbing coronavirus outbreaks, experts say

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and associate professor with the University of Toronto, said curfews can be great tools to help contain outbreaks

Night curfews have been implemented in various countries around the world to help curb novel coronavirus outbreaks.

In Australia’s Victoria, a late night curfew was enforced in August for a six-week period after a sudden resurgence in cases. As of Sunday, the government mandated curfews be in place from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m., every day. Those needing to work, purchase necessary goods and services, access health care or exercise were exempted.

China implemented strict curfews, locking down the country at the beginning of the pandemic. In Spain, officials instituted a curfew for designated hotspots to help flatten the curve July 26.

But do curfews actually work?

Experts say it depends on how the curfew is implemented.

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and associate professor with the University of Toronto, said curfews can be great tools to help contain outbreaks.

When done correctly, he said they have been proven to shorten lockdown periods and help flatten curves.

However, when implemented improperly, he said it could lead to more people disregarding the curfew than following it, which could lead to larger, more unmanageable upticks.

“To what extent can you persuade people to do what you want them to do?” he said.

According to Furness, a curfew can be used to enforce (or reinforce) a certain way of living. By the time they’re announced, he said all options should be closed and there should be “nowhere to go” for people but home.

But if there is no clear policy on store and bar closures, Furness said things can start to appear “authoritarian,” “confusing” and lead to a lot of disobedient and disgruntled citizens.

“You can only push the public so far,” he said.

“If people just feel like they’re being pushed around, then you’re going to get civil disobedience and you’re going to get an erosion of trust — trust in government, trust in public health. That is a dreadful problem when you think about the long game.”

In Wuhan, during their first lockdown Furness said one person per household was allowed outside once a week to go and get food — but it worked. By late March, Wuhan recorded its first day without any new COVID-19 cases.

Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University, said curfews can be useful — under the right conditions.

“What we have seen is a failure, really, to acknowledge that if you make something safe for one group, you sometimes make it less safe for another group. And that that that that comes into play when we’re talking about curfews or limitations,” he said.

Curfews can keep the possibly asymptomatic and healthy from mixing at bars and nightclubs, which are known superspreaders of the virus, but can also create a shorter timeframe and smaller amount of space to get things done throughout the day, Sly said.

With the advent of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions came reduced hours for many grocery stores and shops, he said.

“People that would be at the grocery store are forced to go home, but they still need to get their food. Instead of going later, between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., for example, they now have to go in the middle of the afternoon with everybody else,” said Sly.

“You’ve got an increase in density of people during the rest of the day simply because you’ve told everybody go home.”

In order for curfews to be effective, Sly said they need to be implemented based on local and municipal assessment. The virus cannot thrive for long periods of time in warm conditions, he said, and some areas of the world where happy hours and post-work bar culture are less prevalent may not require stringent restrictions.

In Canada, mass provincial curfews have not been implemented. As of Tuesday, the country’s total case count stood at 117,600 confirmed diagnoses and 8,958 deaths. In recent weeks, Canada has been adding between 250 and 500 cases per day.

Sly said countries where the virus has spread out of control or where mask culture has yet to be normalized, too, could benefit from curfews. In countries in Southeast Asia such as Taiwan, Sly said mask mentality was in place long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Just as a general hygiene thing for dust and common colds and influenza, everyone was wearing face mask outside, so it wasn’t much of a leap of change in behaviour for those countries, so they adopted it very quickly. And of course, they kept the numbers way, way down,” he said.

But in Britain, he said they “hardly wear face masks.” If Australia has the same mentality, Sly said: “the government is probably doing a good thing” in enforcing a curfew.

“If (the government) can’t trust you to wear a face mask to protect other people, then you’d better be home and off the street by the clock,” he said.

- Global News