Ontario closed its schools and suspended jury trials, B.C. advised against foreign travel, several provinces banned large gatherings and most of North America’s professional sports leagues shut down as the response to the spread of COVID-19 escalated with a wave of restrictive measures Thursday.
Dozens of cancellations and postponements were announced as organizers of awards shows, conferences and political campaigns concluded that large gatherings can no longer safely go ahead.
The National Hockey League suspended its season, putting hundreds of employees in limbo, as did Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, a day after the National Basketball Association’s suspension. St. Patrick’s Day and Vaisakhi Day parades were called off, and candidates for the Conservative Party leadership cancelled events.
“These are extraordinary times and we have to take every measure possible,” federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday, calling COVID-19 “an unprecedented public health crisis.”
Ms. Hajdu said Canadians should consider staying home during the March Break period to help stall the progress of the disease. B.C. went a step further, as Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry strongly advised against all travel, even to the United States.
Public health experts describe many of these steps as social distancing measures. Their purpose is to reduce contact with others and slow the speed of transmission. Officials hope that such measures will ward off a spike in coronavirus cases and thereby prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. But the decisions on what to close and what to keep open vary wildly across the country.
The city of Montreal said it will close pools, arenas and libraries while schools remain open. In Ontario, schools will be closed for three weeks but public services remain open, as do most universities. Officials said the risk of transmission remains low, despite the total number of COVID-19 cases rising to more than 140.
In Ontario, Education Minister Stephen Lecce issued a ministerial order to close schools between March 14 to April 5, extending by two weeks the annual spring break for two million schoolchildren. Although children have not been severely affected by the disease in other parts of the world, they could play an important role in its spread.
A few hours earlier, Premier Doug Ford had told families to go ahead with March Break travel plans and “have a good time” despite the pandemic. In contrast, Ms. Hajdu said Canadians should consider a “staycation.”
“There are lots and lots of places in our country that many people have never been to and this would be a great time to stay home,” she said.
The Ontario Superior Court said it was suspending new jury trials. Trials already under way will proceed at the discretion of the judge. John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, praised the move, saying that with up to 400 or 500 people in some jury pools, “it’s irresponsible to have people who are vulnerable placed in a situation of extreme vulnerability in large groups.”
In Quebec, Premier François Legault banned public gatherings of more than 250 people, saying it’s time for the province to go into “emergency mode.” He also suggested anyone returning from travel outside the country should follow the 14-day self-quarantine guidelines. The quarantine is mandatory for public servants, including daycare workers and teachers.
“Our challenge in the next few weeks is to slow down the contagion,” Mr. Legault said.
Mr. Legault, who will speak with his provincial counterparts and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, said Ottawa should “seriously consider” closing the borders to prevent accelerating the spread of illness from outside Canada.
Other provinces followed Quebec with their own statements on large gatherings. Alberta announced a similar 250-person event limit, as did B.C. After New Brunswick’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed late Thursday, the province’s Chief Medical Officer issued an order recommending against gatherings of more than 150 people. The news led to the abrupt cancellation of a sold-out show in Dieppe for singer David Myles.
Alberta’s large-gathering ban includes international conferences and community and sporting events, but excludes places of worship, airports, grocery stores and shopping centres. B.C.’s ban does include places of worship.
“We are asking religious leaders of all faiths to look at ways they can reduce the number of people who meet in public together, or in a building together,” Dr. Henry said.
Most Canadian universities have maintained business as usual. The University of Manitoba said Thursday it has asked faculty to move course materials online and to consider alternatives to traditional exams to encourage social distancing. Events with more than 50 people will be cancelled or postponed. Laurentian University suspended in-person classes after a person who works on campus contracted the coronavirus.
Late Thursday, the University of Western Ontario said it’s cancelling classes through March 17 and will then move to online-only instruction. Residences will remain open. The university said it is working through contingency plans for final exams.
“We don’t have experience in transitioning at such a scale, and so we will all need to be patient with each other as we do so,” Western president Alan Shepard said in an e-mail to campus.
Vivek Goel, vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Toronto, said the university is listening to local public health agencies and is prepared to suspend in-person lectures and shift to online instruction.
“At this stage, they continue to advise the risk of community transmission is low in the Toronto area,” Dr. Goel said. “But we're obviously monitoring the situation very closely and making preparations.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada has said that school closings can reduce virus transmission, but the timing and duration is critical and should happen before the peak of an epidemic. It added that officials should also consider that students would congregate elsewhere, “reducing the intended benefits of school closures and potentially shifting the transmission of the virus to other community settings.”
Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, the front-runners in the Conservative Party leadership campaign, said they are suspending in-person events as a result of the epidemic.
The Juno Awards, a gathering that honours musicians from across country, were to be held in Saskatoon this weekend but organizers said the gala and related events will have to be cancelled. The Canadian Screen Awards, scheduled for March 29, were also cancelled.
The NHL suspended its season until further notice. This followed the NBA announcing late Wednesday it was suspending its season. The MLB said it would delay the start of its regular season by two weeks. The MLS also suspended its season.
With reports from Andrea Woo, Laura Stone, Les Perreaux, Greg Mercer, Caroline Alphonso and Sean Fine
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