‘The system is on the brink of collapse’
Above, spurred by the latest pandemic modelling numbers, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces new measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19 today — though the restrictions are not expected to include a curfew. Watch above: Details are provided Jan. 12 by the premier, Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Dr. Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, Co-Chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
ONTARIO — Declaring the healthcare system “on the brink of collapse,” the Ontario premier and his cabinet have imposed a new stay-at-home order on the population and have reduced the allowable gathering size to just five people — but stopped short of a nighttime curfew as in neighbouring Quebec.
Coming into force between Jan. 12 and Jan. 14, the new measures are among those contained in a second new provincial emergency declared under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. The declaration comes in response to a doubling in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, according to the government, which says high transmission rates represent a “real and looming threat of the collapse of the province’s hospital system” and pose “alarming risks to long-term care homes.”
Prompted by the “alarming and exceptional circumstances,” the new limit on gathering size applies both indoors and out, with limited exceptions, similar to the rules that applied during the first wave last spring.
Also new: Masks will be required inside all open businesses and organizations. Mask-wearing is now officially “recommended” outdoors when physical distancing can’t be maintained as well.
Hours of operation will be cut back at all non-essential retail stores, including hardware stores, alcohol retailers, and those offering curbside pickup or delivery. They can’t open earlier than 7 a.m. and must close no later than 8 p.m. The restricted hours of operation do not apply to stores that primarily sell food, pharmacies, gas stations, convenience stores, and restaurants for takeout or delivery.
Non-essential construction is further restricted, including below-grade construction, exempting survey.
The stay-at-home order comes into effect Thursday, Jan. 14 at 12:01 a.m. It requires everyone to remain at home with exceptions for essential purposes, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy, accessing health care services, for exercise or for essential work. And every business must ensure that any employee who can work from home, does work from home, adds to the government.
The suite of new rules is intended to limit the public’s “concerning levels of mobility” in a bid to cut daily contact outside one’s immediate household, the province also acknowledges.
“The latest modelling data shows that Ontario is in a crisis and, with the current trends, our hospital ICUs will be overwhelmed in a few short weeks with unthinkable consequences,” said Premier Ford. “That’s why we are taking urgent and decisive action, which includes declaring a provincial emergency and imposing a stay-at-home-order. We need people to only go out only for essential trips to pick up groceries or go to medical appointments. By doing the right thing and staying home, you can stay safe and save lives.”
The government is raising alarm over the rising number of COVID-19 patients occupying intensive care unit beds — now at 400. But projections suggest the ICU figure could go as high as 1,000 by early February, potentially overwhelming the system, “unless drastic action is taken.”
“The number of COVID-19-related deaths continues to rise and is expected to double from 50 to 100 deaths per day between now and the end of February. Notably, data shows that mobility and contacts between people have not decreased with the current restrictions. A new variant of COVID-19 emerged in November. If community transmission of this variant occurs, Ontario could experience much higher case counts, ICU occupancy and mortality,” the province adds.
“Despite our best efforts, COVID-19 is continuing to spread in our communities, our hospitals, our long-term care homes, and our workplaces. We are continuing to see concerning trends across the province, including a tragic number of deaths,” said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. “We have made great strides in vaccinating tens of thousands of Ontarians, and we can’t let these efforts go to waste. Urgent action is required to break this deadly trend of transmission, ensure people stay home, and save lives.”
And there are teeth backing the restrictions: All enforcement and provincial offences officers, including the Ontario Provincial Police, local police forces, bylaw officers, and provincial workplace inspectors to issue tickets to individuals who do not comply with the stay-at-home-order, or those not wearing a mask or face covering indoors as well as retail operators and companies who do not enforce. In addition, all enforcement personnel will have the authority to temporarily close a premise and disperse individuals who are in contravention of an order and will be able to disperse people who are gathering, regardless whether a premise has been closed or remains open such as a park or house.
Masking tweak at schools
When elementary school-aged children do return to classrooms, the mask exemption for students in Grades 1 to 3 will no longer apply. Those grades will have to mask up, and there will be new requirements for all pupils to wear masks outdoors on the playground as well.
“At the heart of our continued efforts to protect against the spread of COVID-19 in our communities is a firm commitment to return kids to school safely,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce. “Protecting our students, staff and their families is our top priority, and these additional measures build on our comprehensive plan to reopen schools and keep young children in child care safe.”
To help quickly identify and isolate cases of COVID-19 in workplaces and service providers permitted to remain open — such as long-term care homes and schools — the province says it will provide up to 300,000 COVID-19 rapid tests per week, also benefiting the manufacturing, warehousing, supply chain and food processing sectors. That’s enough rapid testing to support 150,000 workers per week over the next four to five months. The province expects to receive 12 million Panbio tests from the federal government over the next several months and says it continues to pursue opportunities to purchase additional rapid tests.
The province also says it’s exploring all options available to put a temporary residential evictions moratorium in place and will have more to say in the coming days.
Despite the speculation leading up to today’s announcement, the premier reiterated his opposition to imposing a Quebec-style curfew — describing such measure as a “police state” — and acknowledged the need to keep the majority of Ontarians on side with pandemic restrictions.
“We’ve never been strong on applying a police state… I’ve never been in favour of a curfew,” said Ford. “That’s a hard, hard lockdown … Because I believe in the people of Ontario, because as soon as you tell the people of Ontario you’ve lost trust and you’re going to have police chasing you down the street whenever you’re driving — that’s it, it’s game over, you might as well throw in the white flag.
“But the last thing I’ve ever believed in — ever — is that when you pull out of your driveway after 8 o’clock, the police are chasing you down the street, I just do not believe in that,” said Ford, who nonetheless described the stay-at-home order as a “serious” one.
The premier also appealed to the estimated “30 percent” of Ontarians who haven been flouting the rules and recommendations, assuring them that vaccinations are coming later this spring. “We need a little bit of a runway to get there.”