By David Stroud
COVID-19 hit some large cities early in the pandemic. Most will recall that New York City was hit particularly hard. Based on this information, many people concluded that cities are more vulnerable to contagion.
As well, the real estate industry has observed that many Canadians are looking for homes in the suburbs. They have explained this flight to the burbs by concluding that:
- Suburban homes are larger and more suitable for self-isolating with your kids while working from home.
- Canadians feel they are less likely to catch COVID-19 in the suburbs.
It is true that most condo apartment buildings do not have enough three- and four-bedroom (large floorplan) apartments suitable for self-isolating as a family, but scientific research does not support the conclusion that living outside the city will reduce your likelihood of catching COVID-19.
The idea that density raises the risk of contagion may sound straightforward, but on examination, its premise is not well supported by data. If you look around the world, some extremely dense cities, such as Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai, have outperformed many other less-populated places in combating the coronavirus.
The World Bank studied China where there are many very large cities and concluded that there is no clear relationship between city life and contagion. The root cause of contagion is the response speed and quality of public health policy.
The true risk of contagion is high-traffic enclosed areas, like schools, offices, supermarkets, malls, restaurants and bars. People leave their homes (city or suburb) to visit them and then return home and infect their families.
In Europe and Asia where most people live in apartments, larger apartments are common, but in North America, we’ve decided that condos are entry-level and houses are forever homes. At the time of writing this article, hyper-dense Singapore has only five COVID-19 deaths for every million citizens and Japan has nine deaths per million. The United States, inventors of suburbia, has 524 per million and Canada 239 deaths per million.
Some readers may associate the pandemic with big cities because that is where the disease first arrived from international airports, and because they were unprepared for the first wave. You may be surprised to learn that the following states have high death rates (per million): Missouri (241), Virginia (279), Iowa (331), Minnesota (312), Ohio (328), Colorado (329), New Mexico (342), Nevada (350), Alabama (393), South Carolina (444), Indiana (444), Mississippi (704) and Connecticut (1,250).
Closer to home, on August 18 there were 142 unresolved cases reported by Toronto Public Health and 158 cases reported by Peel Public Health. Toronto Public Health Serves 2.9 million residents, including the city core (1 case per 20,000 residents), while Peel Public Health serves 1.3 million residents who live in the suburbs of Toronto (1 case per 8,000 residents). Based on this data, you are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 in the Toronto suburbs than in the city core.
If leaving your home is the high-risk activity that could bring COVID-19 into your home, then living in the city could help keep you safe. In most cases, cities have better high-speed internet coverage, which enables work-from-home arrangements. As well, in cities, door-to-door delivery services are more conveniently available at competitive prices. These services make it easier for residents to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.
If you need to leave home, cities are more walkable and have dedicated bike lanes for quick trips to local stores. The benefit of walking and biking to smaller local merchants is that you avoid the inevitable bottleneck between the parking lot and the entrance to the big-box store. The checkout queues at big box stores are also a concern when you are trying to maintain physical distancing.
Finally, if the worst should happen, cities offer higher-grade healthcare facilities, faster ambulance response times and they have most of the intensive care beds.
What about the backyard?
While a backyard is appealing for the brief Canadian summer, the pandemic is expected to last at least another 12 months and your backyard will be much less appealing in the cold (or wet) Canadian winter.
The pandemic has been politicized. NIMBY “anti-density” groups are blaming apartment living for the spread of the coronavirus and claim that if cities grow upward instead of outward, the next pandemic will be even worse. Don’t blame dense cities for the spread of coronavirus.
Choose a home that fits your long-term lifestyle rather than your pandemic lifestyle. If you’re unsure what your long-term lifestyle (the new normal) will look like, then feel free to wait and see.