One of the good things about the Biden presidency has been the reduction in Trump-oriented small talk. This has left old favourites (the weather) and new upstarts (Covid vaccination) as the big small talk items. And really, it is easy to see how hand in hand these two topics go. Locking down has been especially tough in the cold. Restaurant owners have seen their patios empty, tired parents have had to struggle to get (and keep) their toddlers’ jackets and gloves and hats and snowpants on, front-line workers have had to wait outside for the bus or scrape ice and snow off their cars at the start and end of a stressful day, deliverymen and women have had to unpack groceries or bike over meal deliveries in freezing weather, homeless people have had to take refuge in shelters vulnerable to Covid, elderly or disabled people have been unable to go to the mall or gyms or cafes when it’s too icy or windy to walk outside, basement apartment dwellers have gotten limited sunlight and their ceilings stamped on by their working-from-home neighbours upstairs. More generally, anybody living with a bad home situation or in a crowded apartment has found it harder to find some peace and privacy, or socialization, by simply going outside.
With all of this in mind, I’ve made a chart that shows both winter weather and vaccination rates in various countries. The y-axis shows average daily high temperatures for capital cities during the month of February, the x-axis vaccination rates in those same countries as of March 1. Obviously, this chart isn’t meant to yield any great insights. It’s just…making small talk.
Here we can see the sunny outliers, Israel with its 90+ percent vaccination rate and warm winter weather, and the United Arab Emirates, with its 60 percent vaccination rate and even warmer weather. And we can also see the opposite extreme, the minus-10 degree daily high temperatures in the capital cities of Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar) and Kazakhstan (Nur Sultan, aka Astana, aka Akmola), and almost no vaccinations. (Mongolia has at least had one of the lowest Covid death rates of any country in the world, about 100 times lower than in Kazakhstan and about 1000 times lower than in countries like the US, the UK, and Italy).
The US and UK are also outliers in vaccination however, and, at least in London and in the southern US, are also enjoying fairly warm weather. Perhaps more of a surprise is Serbia, which is next to the US and the UK here. Serbia has been open to vaccines coming not just from American pharmaceutical companies but also from Russia (the Sputnik vaccine, which has not yet been used much even in Russia) and China (the Sinopharm vaccine). (In terms of Covid death rates, Serbia has been a middle-of-the-pack country; its death rate is only about a third as high as in the US, the UK, or its own next-door neighbours Hungary and Montenegro, and it is roughly equal with those of countries like Canada and Israel).
Chile, where it is still summer, is another country that has had a relatively successful vaccination campaign. A number of small, warm island states, like the Maldives, Barbados, Bahrain, and Malta, have as well. In contrast, none of the countries where daily high temperatures average below zero in February, such as Finland, Norway, Canada, Russia, and Ukraine, are ahead in vaccinations. Outside of southern Canada, these countries are not just cold but also extremely dark during the winter.
In countries like Russia and Canada, it will be at least 2 more months before warm weather or significant rates of vaccination occur. (As I finish writing this now, on March 15 in Toronto, around noon, it is minus-2 outside, and 5% of Canadians have received a first dose of a vaccine). On the bright side, there is now a bright side: with the days getting longer, there is more sun to go around, especially on the south-facing side of streets. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the two other big city-small talk topics of conversation: traffic/parking, and restaurants.
With indoor dining closed, and with patios needing to provide a responsible amount of social distance space (at the very least, so as to not scare away potential customers), restaurant-adjacent sunny patio space may be a precious commodity this spring. After all, you get cold quickly when sitting down in the shade. And yet, if the patio policy that existed in autumn is any indication, the vast majority of sunshine will be given to car-driving lanes and street parking, leaving most patios either in shadier areas or with less-than-ideal social distancing.
A maximally restaurant-friendly patio policy, in contrast, would take today’s 4-lane east-west main streets and make them temporarily 2-lane streets, so that the entire south-facing half of the street could become a sunny springtime patio and pedestrian area. On north-south-streets, meanwhile, which tend to be shaded on the east side in the morning and the west side in the evening, the two median lanes could perhaps be turned into a patio area. They would become like little sunny islands in the middle of the street — like Barbados, only closer to home, and still open to Canadians.
I’ve left out, of course, the smallest-talk subject of all: daylight savings. This year it’s not just about the farmers. Restauranteurs too can benefit from more sunlight during dinnertime, if we give patios the space they need. This is something they, and we, could all look enjoy a after a long, difficult winter. So, let’s make a slight addition to the old mnemonic this year. Spring ahead, put the cars in the shade.