How a ‘risk budget’ is helping some Ontarians navigate a spring without COVID public health restrictions

A dance class, a live play, the chance to hold a friend’s baby, even a family trip to the zoo.

These are some of the moments many Ontarians have missed out on over the last two years of the pandemic and are looking forward to again now with the peak of Omicron in the past.

But with public health restrictions, including masks, now dropped, and messages from politicians that COVID-19 is done, it can be difficult to navigate this sometimes-jarring new reality.

Instead of acting like it’s 2019, one approach to this confusing time is to employ a personal “risk budget,” taking small risks for meaningful memories while maintaining precautions in other areas. The size of a group, vaccination status, ventilation in a space, and time spent unmasked are all factors to be considered when deciding when and where to “spend” the budget.

“Everyone is so tired of (the pandemic). We wish that it was over but it’s not,” said Sasha Singer-Wilson a theater artist and mom to an almost three-year-old daughter.

“So what are the tools that we can use to be making our decisions?”

Vaccines and new treatments have changed the game, but kids under five haven’t had any shots. Older and immunocompromised people still face risks, and according to the Ontario Science Table, the COVID wastewater signal shows an uptick in community cases. Hospitalizations and ICU occupancy have plunged since early winter, but test positivity is up.

In this context, many, including Singer-Wilson, are continuing to mask inside public spaces, even now that the provincial mandate has expired, as a way to “save” on a risk budget.

She also uses rapid tests when possible, and checks in with friends to make sure they are fully vaccinated and don’t have any symptoms or recent exposures, before meeting.

The 35-year-old recently went to a live production of the dramatic comedy “Gloria,” where the audience was masked, the first live play she’d been to in two years.

A friend from Vancouver will stay with her this spring, and she recently saw another friend’s pandemic baby.

“We rapid tested, we made sure there were no symptoms or anything. It was like this is a risk I’m willing to take,” she said. “It was worth it.”

Aside from her daughter Lola being too young to be vaccinated, Singer-Wilson doesn’t have any personal COVID risk factors, and she is triple-vaccinated. But, she stressed, it’s not all about her, but also the more vulnerable people she could potentially pass the disease on to.

That’s also how Samantha Yammine, a science communicator with a PhD in cell and molecular biology and neuroscience, feels.

On Monday, as the mask mandate expired in Ontario she tweeted that she’d continue to wear one in public spaces, saving her risk budget for “moments when it’s more meaningful to not mask.”

Many reached out saying the framework resonated with them, but there can be some “gaslighting” for continuing to be cautious, she noted.

“I feel really confident with the tools I have. I’m not really afraid, I’m just trying to be courteous,” said Yammine, who goes by “Science Sam” on social media.

Yammine, personally wears a KF94 mask (a higher quality than a surgical mask) in indoor public spaces, but sees small groups of friends inside, unmasked, with rapid tests. She tries to keep these gatherings to a minimum, and they throw on an air purifier if there is one. If she’s seeing someone more vulnerable, like her niece who’s too young to be vaccinated, she will hold off on other plans that week.

Just like a real budget, a risk budget can be bigger or smaller depending on your own personal health and that of people in your household, said Katie Moisse, an assistant professor at McMaster teaching science communication.

Moisse and her family have a relatively small risk budget, she said, as they often visit with her parents and grandparents who are in their 90s. But they prioritized playdates for their daughter, aged 5 and son, aged 8, and family trips like a recent outing to Niagara Falls that included glow-in-the-dark mini golf and a rare lunch out, and a trip to Ripley’s Aquarium.

“I think it’s a helpful concept in reminding us that we can splurge every once in a while,” she said. “And then stay within the budget in other ways”

Raphaella So, a 27-year-old PhD student, is quite cautious, wearing a KF94 mask indoors. Long COVID is a concern, and she also wants to protect the colleagues in her lab, as she can’t work remotely. Her splurge comes in the form of a dance class, where she can get exercise and practice choreography to her favorite K-pop songs. “It’s like the one hobby that has kept me alive,” she said.

Rob MacNeil, a 45-year-old father of three, also has a risk budget on the small side because he is immunocompromised and his youngest child is also not yet eligible for a vaccine. For now, that means staying away from eating indoors at restaurants and big events like hockey games. But the family has enjoyed patio dining and trips to the Toronto Zoo, which has kept vaccine and mask mandates and features lots of outdoor exhibits.

“All things being equal we’re going to go to places where we know, or have a pretty good understanding that (people) are vaccinated if eligible and they’re wearing masks at this point,” he said.

Yammine, who is planning her own wedding for August with a vaccination requirement, wants others to know they can still enjoy life without acting like the virus isn’t there.

She cautions against “all or nothing type thinking” and says even if you take the mask off in some places, like a restaurant, it doesn’t mean you have to drop it everywhere.

“We can do a lot, but just because you’re doing a lot doesn’t mean there’s no precautions you can put in place,” she said.

“Wearing a mask in a grocery store to me, at this point, is really chill, so why wouldn’t I when that can then make the things that really matter to me a little safer.”

Correction – March 24, 2022 – This story has been updated to indicate Katie Moisse has a son and a daughter.

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