Toronto, Peel Region, North Bay to remain under Ontario’s stay-at-home orders
JEFF GRAY, MARIEKE WALSH, LAURA STONE
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
February 19 at 1:30 p.m.
Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region will remain under stay-at-home orders, the Ontario government said on Friday, after the province’s cabinet agreed with pleas from local medical officers of health to delay lifting COVID-19 restrictions amid fears of new and more contagious variants.
Almost all of the province’s remaining local public health units have already moved into reduced restrictions, including allowing restaurants and non-essential retail to reopen, while students across Ontario have also returned to schools. Other provinces have also relaxed their rules, as case counts have declined.
But local medical officers of health in Toronto and Peel went public with calls for the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, to recommend that cabinet keep their regions under current pandemic restrictions, citing the threat of new variants that experts warn could cause a massive third wave of infections. The province’s move leaves non-essential retailers and restaurants shut in these two areas for at least two more weeks.
However, Ontario said Friday that neighbouring York Region will move into the province’s “Red/Control” level of restrictions, which allows indoor dining in restaurants, with capacity limited to 10 customers and shopping at non-essential retailers who limit their capacity to 25 per cent. The region’s medical officer of health requested the move, saying he believed the variants were being kept in check.
The North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit, where the lifting of the provincewide shutdown was delayed after a variant outbreak struck a North Bay apartment building, will also stay under a stay-at-home order – the only such region outside the Greater Toronto Area.
Cabinet met Friday to make the final decision on Dr. Williams’s recommendations. The changes, announced in a media release, take effect on Monday.
The pause in Ontario’s gradual reopening came after federal public health officials warned on Friday that lifting restrictions could see COVID-19 infections surge to 20,000 new cases a day, driven by the more contagious new variants.
Even with current restrictions in place across the country, federal Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Canada could face 10,000 new cases a day by April, erasing recent declines that have put the seven-day average for new cases at 2,968. Modelling she release also suggested that if governments bring in more restrictions, and individuals engage in strict physical distancing, the coming third wave could be stamped out.
Dr. Tam cautioned against opening other parts of the economy at the same time as schools, as Ontario is now doing.
“Look at what happens to that for three weeks. Don’t keep adding on the easing of measures. Give it enough time to see what actually happens in order to inform whether you need to tighten or whether you can continue,” she said.
She also urged the province to ensure its contact tracing and testing capacity are in place before easing measures, in order to contain any resurgence: “You can’t just keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.”
Ontario’s steady decline in cases appeared to be stalling: On Friday, the province reported 1,150 new cases, back above the 1,000-case threshold for a second day. But the percentage of people getting tested whose samples were positive hit a low not seen since October, at 2.1 per cent. There were 47 deaths.
There were also 39 new confirmed variant cases, for a cumulative total of 395 – although officials warn that these confirmed numbers underestimate the total that is circulating.
Ontario’s reopening plans had earlier even faced criticism from Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, dean of the University of Toronto’s school of public health and head of the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table. He warned last week that relaxing restrictions as the variants spread could cause 5,000 to 6,000 infections-a-day by the end of March.
Anthony Dale, head of the Ontario Hospital Association, had called the province’s plan to lift its stay-at-home orders “shocking and confusing,” as intensive care units in parts of the province remained under heavy strain.
But lobbyists for small businesses and retailers have warned against stopping the gradual reopening, saying their members in Toronto and Peel were desperate to try to recover their mounting losses after months of lockdown.
Meanwhile, Ontario released an updated vaccine distribution plan on Friday that shows the province’s 643,000 seniors over 80 who live outside long-term care or retirement homes could begin receiving their first vaccine doses as early as this month, but more likely in March. Government officials cautioned that it depends on the availability of vaccines from Ottawa. The province also said it is developing an online booking system and a customer service line for people to book their shots, with details to come.