Life after lockdown – adapting to a new reality as people return to school, work and GO Transit

As many GO Transit and UP Express riders slowly return to workplaces this fall, Metrolinx senior manager of media, Anne Marie Aikins, joins in a collective adjustment to carve out a new normal in familiar places. In this column, she points out that venturing back out isn’t as easy as a return after an annual vacation.

Your own office or usually familiar workplace may feel like the cold side of the moon.

I get that.

Boy do I get that – even though I’m happy to be making the return voyage.

For months now, it’s been just essential workers venturing out to ensure our bellies were full, our critical services like public transit continued, our sick were tended to and our public services available.

The province has now moved to Stage 3 — this is great news for our economy with more people coming back to transit, to daycare, schools and workplaces.

Anne Marie Aikins sits at a desk and looks at her computer.
Anne Marie Aikins in her Metrolinx office, inside Union Station. Note the calendar on the wall behind, which has not been changed since the COVID lock-down began (Aman Gill photo)

But not everyone is ready to move on.

While some of us who have been working from home all these months are eager to go back to see colleagues in person, and never have another videoconference ever again, others aren’t quite ready to move out of the sanctity of their homes. At least not full-time.  

We have to figure out how to navigate this strange world and keep ourselves, families and co-workers safe while COVID-19 still exists. And take care of our mental health. I don’t know about yours but mine has taken a beating the last six months.

Finding the right strategy and balance for you and your family during the final months of what has been a chaotic, unpredictable and deadly year is really unique to your own circumstances.

But this is what works for me and protects both my physical and mental health:

I’m keeping my bubble pretty tight and spending as much time outdoors as humanly possible. That protects both my mental and physical health. I’ve started going back into Toronto’s Union Station a few days a week (I just noticed my office calendar is frozen in time on the month of March and I’m not ready to turn the page as yet). The rest of the time I’m continuing to work from home. Small gatherings are outside only; no big parties or bars for me. I’m enjoying restaurant dining again occasionally, but only outdoors.

Anne Marie is seen walking through Union Station.
Anne Marie walks through Union Station. (Aman Gill photo)

I really hope my favourite bistros and patios are investing in plenty of heaters and coverings so we can extend the outdoor eating season long into late fall.

Now that the whole province has moved to stage 3, we’ve finally booked my sister Jenny’s celebration of her life on September 26 and I really hope nothing jeopardizes that plan.  It’s said that grief is the price of loving deeply but the cost has inflated so much without the ritual of grieving together. But I know my family is not alone — so many people sadly lost loved ones during this time of lockdown, both through COVID or other causes.

(Editor’s update – Unfortunately given the size of the Aikins clan – there are 8 surviving siblings plus their families – and the increase in new cases of COVID-19, Anne Marie’s family has made the difficult but safer decision to again postpone Jenny’s funeral.)

I developed my own personal plan after much study and practice that continues to this day as researchers learn more about the transmission of the virus. I had the distinct advantage of being knee-deep in pandemic planning and response since January. Knowledge helps us to make informed decisions and feel a little more in control. And I try very hard to be patient with myself — some days are better than others. I also try to not plan too far ahead — lots of uncertainties still abound as this pandemic continues and I may have to change plans.

Building your tolerance for the new reality

I am one of those workers who ventured into the office regularly during the pandemic — first few months in the Metrolinx Emergency Operations Centre, then mostly at home with only handling media interviews by phone or video. The last month or so I have been spending two to three days in the office at Union Station, returned to doing media interviews from a safe distance and the rest of time working from my condo.

Vito holds up a sign that reads: "Mental health matters - We are in this together. Time heals."
Vito Mangialardi, Metrolinx senior manager of Business Continuity and deputy incident commander for the emergency COVID response team, holds up a message of support earlier this year. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

As a result, my comfort level and tolerance has grown for wearing masks all day, taking transit, carrying hand sanitizer, masks and wipes in a functional fanny pack (it’s sparkly at least), following directional signage, and meeting with live people that don’t freeze on me. Sometimes I think they still have a mute button though.

Truth-be-told, I am lousy at following the arrows on the floor but I am getting better. We are all adapting as we go, and it takes time and practice to learn how to function again in the outside world and not only stay safe, but feel safe. Be compassionate and patient with yourself and others.

Before you leave home…

Plan and plan some more. When you are tackling something new — even if you’ve taken transit a million times pre-pandemic — a refresher under these circumstances is warranted. Take some practice runs — baby steps perhaps with one of your bubble buddies.

Consider walking or biking whenever you can. Perhaps pop into a GO station or Union Station just to experience all the changes firsthand.  If heading out to catch a GO or UP train, or GO bus, check the schedules beforehand as many of the times have changed since March..  

Consider travelling off-peak. Ridership is coming back but it’s still much lower than usual and off-peak trips are often the quietest rides. That will help ease you back into transit and reduce anxieties. Make sure you aren’t sick before you head out to transit and don’t forget your most fashionable face covering as it’s mandatory on transit.

Dust off your PRESTO card and make sure you have updated your app. Some positive changes happened while you were gone and now there are more ways to load money instantly.

Don’t forget to change out of your pajamas before heading out.

If you’re concerned about being indoors please read up on how clean and fresh the air is inside GO trains and this study out of the UK that found transit riders are very safe travelling on trains during the pandemic (we also haven’t had an outbreak related to our trains or buses).

And don’t forget to visit one of our health kiosks in the stations to familiarize yourself with all the other things we are doing to help keep you safe – you can even check your temperature and how nasty dirty your phone is.

Customers sit in seats on a GO train.
Riders take a recent journey on a GO train. (Metrolinx photo)

What to expect on your bus or train:

Many new safety measures are in place in our offices and facilities — our staff go through health screening, wear masks and keep their distance while on duty, they stay home when ill or fear they have been exposed, and have an ample supply of hand and work station sanitizer. So you know we’ve worked hard to ensure your staff remain healthy – we’ve had an usually low staff infection rate as a result thankfully – so they are there for you when you return. And they are ready to help — just ask.

We’ve implemented many of the same procedures for our buses, trains and stations. Directional signage to help keep you apart, hand sanitizer stations throughout our network and on trains and buses, mandatory face coverings for passengers, extra cleaning throughout the day, and we’re installing air purifiers in many offices and stations.

We’ve also invested in something very unique to put some distance between you and your seat mates on the buses and trains —we’re installing seat barriers on buses and trains to put some physical separation between you and your seat mate. So with a mask you’ve got extra protection.  A tip for the broad shouldered folks — you may be more comfortable sitting in a non-window seat.

Masks — keep it on throughout your journey. That means on platforms, in stations and on the train or bus. Make sure you wear it correctly. Can you sip your coffee? Sure, just make sure you remove one ear loop carefully, take a drink and slip your mask into the right spot again.

What if you see someone not wearing a mask? For me, I move along and sit with people who are wearing masks – you’ll find most are wearing their masks on transit. There are physical and mental health conditions that preclude some people from wearing masks and that must be a tough place to be during a pandemic. Staff will be speaking to customers, reminding them and even offering a mask.

Although I understand the reasons why people may not be wearing a mask — and believe me I know not every person not wearing a mask has a legitimate reason — I don’t recommend confrontations. There are other places to sit. If my trip is long, I move every 15 minutes (which also reduces your risk because this virus needs sustained contact to transmit efficiently). That also leads me to suggest you download, if you haven’t already the free COVID alert app to get potential exposure notifications.

We will also assist public health agencies with reaching out to transit riders who were potentially exposed by an infected person by providing officials with limited PRESTO contact information if warranted. And rest assured we will update you whenever a staff member tests positive right here.

A few more reminders…

  • Since masks are mandatory on transit…Transit Safety is travelling throughout the system and reminding customers to wear their face coverings throughout their journey. If you have forgotten yours, we are putting in some PPE vending machines in stations.
  • Paying for transit – no cash for foreseeable future. Make sure you have updated your PRESTO card and remember to tap on and off.
  • Lost & Found – there have been some changes to ensure safety during the pandemic so please check ahead if you’ve lost something.
  • Compliance Office – also please check ahead for your options
  • Remind yourself of the Parking and Reserved Parking policies as well as Bike Parking at stations. 

Venturing back out to a workplace won’t be easy for some.

It’s different out there.

But I honestly believe, we’re all in this together, so that new world is not such an isolating place to work, play and reconnect.

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx, senior manager of media.