HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA - A quiet cafe patio hums with conversation on an exceptionally warm day in an otherwise cold November. Two men stand to go to the take-out window to order another coffee and they put on their masks — not because there is any real likelihood of contracting COVID-19 but in order to show politeness to the barista at the take-out window.
The pandemic that is surging out of control in the United States and Europe is practically non-existent in the four provinces that make up Atlantic Canada; there are currently 45 active and just four new cases in a land area roughly the size of Thailand, Spain or Kenya.
Even so, the stereotypically polite Canadians across this thinly populated region are for the most part observing the standard guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing, a practice that seems to be helping to keep the contagion at bay.
Their reward for good behavior is inclusion in a travel “bubble” allowing free movement within the four provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Outsiders entering the region — including from the rest of Canada — are required to quarantine for 14 days.
"Things being open and not shut down definitely gives some feeling of normal," said 26-year-old Brendon Dixon from East Hants, Nova Scotia. "But the whole sectioning off of spaces in businesses is still super off-putting to me. Necessary, but off-putting. My options to work outside my home and outside my place of work are limited."
In Halifax, the largest city in the region with fewer than 500,000 residents, life in many ways has a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy.
Close friends and family get together in small groups and hold small parties. Audiences are able to attend live music and sports events, though with great care taken for social distancing and facemasks, which are mandatory in public indoor spaces such as lobbies and elevators.
Downtown offices have gone fully remote or encourage social distancing inside the office but usually require masks only when entering and leaving the building. The city's Navy dockyard encourages social distancing, hand sanitizer, and other safety measures, but does not require facemasks on the base.
But life is not without anxiety. Many remain skittish in public places, especially when confronted with individuals who ignore the standard precautions.
"I mean, it all feels normal, but also still scary," said 23-year-old student Riley Nielson from Halifax. "A lot of people in my building don't wear masks in public areas and it stresses me out. ... I'm worried that many people aren't taking this all seriously anymore."
If some residents are no longer taking the pandemic threat seriously, officials in the four provinces certainly are.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil voiced his concern on Sunday when the number of active cases in his province ticked up to 20, and warnings were sent out to residents who had been in the same martini bar or church as someone who was later found to be sick.
Neighboring New Brunswick implemented a partial lockdown after a small outbreak in the cities of Moncton and Campbellton in October, quickly bringing the number of new cases back down to zero.
New cases, when they are detected in the Atlantic region, are usually traced back to a visitor from outside. But that has not dampened enthusiasm for the travel bubble, which has been a boon to tourism and related economic activity.
“Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada are among the safest places in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the Atlantic Bubble and our citizens’ willingness to follow public health protocols,” said McNeil, the Nova Scotia premier, in an interview.
“And it’s been working — since July, nearly all new cases have been linked back to travel outside the Bubble,” he said.
In the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Atlantic Travel Bubble is popular as well. Kathy Dicks-Peyton is the Media Relations Manager of the Department of Health and Community Services.
“The opening of the Atlantic Bubble has been positive for Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Dicks-Peyton. “To date, there haven’t been any significant challenges.”
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told VOA the travel bubble has led to “more people returning to their places of work, more opportunity to socialize in small numbers, and an ability to visit our neighboring provinces in a way that has provided some benefit in a devastating year for tourism operators.”
One key to the region’s success has been its low population density, with fewer than 2.5 million residents spread over an area comparable to a medium-sized country. But broad compliance with health directives is also a factor.
“Lower population density reduces the chance of spreading SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said epidemiologist Devbani Raha, who added, “People are continuing to follow fairly stringent public health measures.”
Raha went on, “From my personal observations, I feel that people are still taking this seriously. I see people wearing masks, I see people outside giving people two meters space on sidewalks or in the park.
“Unfortunately, this week we've had new cases diagnosed in Nova Scotia, and I hope this doesn't signal the onset of the second wave," she said. "However, my sense is that, should cases begin to rise, we may see a return of a series of lockdown measures. I hope it doesn't come to that, because we've been lucky to enjoy relatively normal lives.”