OTTAWA -- As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, public health officials continue to urge residents to be cautious about the risk of viral spread, especially in relaxed settings with friends or family.

While regulations are in place governing mask use in public spaces and gathering spots like bars and restaurants are closed, Ottawa's top doctor says there is still a risk outside of those places.

"Watch your blind spots," said Dr. Vera Etches at a press conference on Tuesday. "Data collected during our case management process is indicating that we also have significant blind spots in situations that are not covered by provincial or municipal regulations, like crowd gathering limits or the mandatory mask by-law."

Some of the so-called "blind spots" includes gathering with extended family or larger friend circles and thinking the risk of transmission isn't there. Carpools without masks and social gatherings before and after sports were other examples.

Dr. Etches did not have any immediate data to compare the rate of transmission in these "blind spots" versus other kinds of high-risk activities or places, but stressed that close contact is the main driver of spread.

"Transmission of COVID-19 will occur in any setting if given the opportunity and the risk is there whenever people are less than two metres from each other and not wearing masks," she said.

One particular source of transmission stands out: lunch.

"Employees having lunch together seems to be something that comes up over and over again as a source of outbreak," Dr. Etches said. "It's this idea that when we're with our colleagues or our friends, we relax and it's okay and think the risk isn't there and that's just not true. It is what gives the virus the opportunity to spread."

In these cases, it's recommended colleagues sit at least two metres apart during shared lunch breaks and wear masks when socializing.

While the message Tuesday was about individual actions, Dr. Etches also acknowledged the stress many people have been under during the pandemic.

"This is no one's fault. This is a virus that is often present when people don't know it. People have no symptoms or very mild symptoms they might not realize are COVID-19," she said. "That's why we need the distance between each other and we need to wear masks. The lunch is particularly challenging because we need to take off our masks to eat but even if you're with your colleagues, that's a risk."

Daily case counts in Ottawa have been decreasing compared to earlier in the month, when there were several days of triple-digit increases. Dr. Etches says it shows people are largely doing the right thing to limit spread of the virus.

"I want to say congratulations to the people of Ottawa. There is some encouraging indication that we're having some success in decreasing COVID in our community," Dr. Etches said. "The rapid rise in people testing positive has changed. I want to encourage people to do what has been making a difference, that is, limiting our contacts with people outside our household."