Randall Denley: Ontario announces the most timid reopening plan in Canada

Ontario has the lowest number of active COVID cases per 100,000 people of any province outside of the Atlantic region. So why do we have such strict restrictions?

Author of the article:Randall Denley

Publishing date:Feb 08, 2021  

Ontario Premier Doug Ford wears his Toronto Maple Leafs mask during the daily briefing in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. PHOTO BY FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

So it turns out Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s big announcement Monday wasn’t about opening the provincial economy now. Instead, it was primarily about tweaking the definition of a lockdown, which is something almost all Ontarians could face until much better COVID-19 safety levels are reached.

The biggest thing in Ford’s teeny, tiny easing of restrictions is allowing all stores to open at 25 per cent capacity. That’s something, but the message is contradicted by the continuation of a stay-at-home order in all but three small rural areas. So, stores are open, just don’t go there. As Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams put it Monday, you can go to non-essential businesses, but only when it’s essential.

People have complained in the past that the provincial government’s restrictions were confusing and illogical. Monday’s “plan” takes that to new heights. The provincial government proudly says that Ontario has the lowest number of active COVID cases per 100,000 people of any province outside of the Atlantic region. It’s true, and by a wide margin. One might be excused for thinking that fact constitutes a strong argument for relaxing Ontario’s unique restrictions to match what other provinces are doing, at a minimum.

Wrong. Instead, Ontario will keep a stay-at-home order in place until Feb. 16 for most areas of the province and until Feb. 22 for Toronto, Peel and York.

To put that in context, the government offered a detailed comparison with British Columbia, which has a higher rate of active cases than Ontario. And yet, B.C. has restaurants, gyms and barbershops open. Ontario has done none of that, although it is allowing emergency pet grooming. All the B.C. comparison establishes is that Ontario is the most restrictions-retentive jurisdiction in the country, but lacks a factual base for its continued timidity.

Ontario does plan to return to its risk-related regional rules system once the stay-at-home orders end later this month, although even that is not certain. As Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott made clear repeatedly Monday, much depends on the unpredictable new COVID variants and the number of people in intensive care.

That’s why the government is waiting longer, to see what happens next. Why do they think things will be better in a week?

“We can’t return to normal, not yet, not while our hospitals could still be overwhelmed,” Ford said. Well, there’s a problem if you think the economy should be reopened any time in the foreseeable future. As long as the virus is active, Ontario’s hospitals could be overwhelmed. Bear in mind that the threshold for being overwhelmed is anything more than 300 people in ICU in a province of more than 14 million. Williams keeps saying the intensive care number shouldn’t be more than 150, but it’s more than double that now. If that’s the yardstick, Ontario won’t see reliable lessening of restrictions any time soon.

Even the small steps Ford announced came with a new safety provision. Williams has been given a new set of “emergency brakes,” which he can apply at will if he thinks things are getting out of control in any part of the province at any time. No more need for that pesky political permission. These new brakes are being given to a guy who is already driving in the slow lane with his foot off the gas pedal.

The latest thinking, such as it is, contradicts the “reasoning” that was offered when the province determined that the entire province needed to be locked down, regardless of local COVID conditions, because hordes of infected people would drive to safe areas, dooming them too. Wednesday, three areas will be allowed to return to a semblance of normalcy, including reopening restaurants. What will the hordes do?

Ford did mention that 153,000 people lost their jobs during the January lockdown. He feels bad about that folks, honestly, he does. That’s why he’s taking “decisive action” to allow businesses to partly reopen. Just don’t abuse the privilege by going to one of them.

Last week, cabinet debated a much more significant reopening with a quicker, clearer return to the fact-based restrictions that applied before the Christmas panic. Instead, the government is offering a slightly modified lockdown, continuing stay-at-home orders and the country’s most timid reopening plan. It’s pathetic.

Maybe Ford wanted to do more, but his hands are tied. Premier David Williams vetoed stronger action. Sorry, correct that. Williams is technically the chief medical officer of health. The premier is the guy who reads out Williams’s memos.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

A look at what Ontario’s phased reopening will look like

Ontario will begin reopening its economy on Wednesday by gradually transitioning regions back to a colour-coded restrictions system.

A stay-at-home order will remain in place for communities until they move over to the tiered system. The province is also bringing in an “emergency brake” it can use to move regions back into lockdown if cases spike. Here’s a breakdown of the plan:

Feb. 10:The regions of Hastings Prince Edward; Kingston Frontenac and Lennox and Addington; and Renfrew County and District will enter the “green” category of the restrictions system. That will allow non-essential retailers to open, restaurants to offer indoor dining, and personal care services to open.

Feb. 16:The province’s remaining public health units will transition to the colour-coded restrictions system, except for three hot spots in the Greater Toronto Area. The category regions are placed in will depend on case rates at the time.

Feb. 22:The hot spots of Toronto, Peel Region and York Region are expected to transition back to the colour-coded restrictions system, though the province said any sudden increase in cases could delay that plan.

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