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Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called critics of his COVID-19 stay-at-home order irresponsible on Wednesday, even though key details of the sweeping directive were only released hours before it was to take effect.

The Premier said the order, which is to last until at least Feb. 11, will exempt essential trips for food, medicine, exercise or work, and would be enforced as the law as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday. However, late Wednesday afternoon, police said they had not seen the order and could not say how it would be enforced.

The directive, released publicly later on Wednesday, also exempts a long list of other destinations, including businesses that are open or allowed to offer curbside pickup, as well as schools, child-care facilities, banks, government services, airports or bus and train stations in order to travel outside the province. Homeless people are exempt, as are dog walkers or anyone exercising an animal. So is travel to a wedding, funeral or religious service. Those who live alone may travel to gather with another household.

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Mr. Ford said earlier Wednesday that the government would rely on Ontarians to use their “best judgment.”

“If you’re not sure if a trip is absolutely essential, it probably isn’t,” the Premier said.

Before the text was released, opposition politicians, public-heath experts and Toronto Mayor John Tory all called the plan for a stay-at-home order confusing. Despite an order telling Ontarians not to leave their homes except for “essential” reasons, non-essential retailers remain free to offer curbside pickup for all goods, and some big-box retailers are allowed to stay open.

“There is no confusion,” Mr. Ford insisted earlier on Wednesday, despite his office sending out a three-page FAQ trying to explain the order. “I hear some elected officials, local ones and other ones, [saying] ‘Oh, it’s confusing.’ Folks, there is no confusion here. It’s very simple. Stay home. Stay home. That’s it. … For anyone who says [it’s confusing], elected officials, you aren’t being responsible.”

Ontario's premier is defending his government's new stay-at-home order against criticism that the latest measure to fight COVID-19 is not clear. Doug Ford stressed that the measure means people should 'use their best judgment' to determine if they need to leave their home as virus rates surge. The Canadian Press

But the Premier’s Office has also said the order will rely on the “discretion” of police and bylaw officers to hand out tickets that come with up to $1,000 fines or to lay charges that could result in up to $100,000 in fines or even jail time.

Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who heads the city’s emergency response, said Wednesday afternoon that his city’s police and his bylaw enforcement teams had not yet received a copy of the order, and would have to first study the new rules when the government provides them. He said this would make it unlikely any new enforcement would start Thursday at 12:01 a.m.

“Literally, the best information we have right now comes off a media release and a slide deck, and it simply is not the technical detail that we need in order to assess or understand that,” Chief Pegg said.

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Like many public-health experts, both Mr. Tory and Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa said they welcomed any new rules that enforce the message they have been sending since the pandemic began in order to curb its spread: Stay home. But Mr. Tory defended his move to ask for more clarity around the new rules.

“There is an onus on those who make rules, including us, when we make them, to make sure that they’re clear and consistent,” he said.

The Ontario Provincial Police also said they did not expect to receive the order until late Wednesday and would have nothing to say about it until Thursday.

The stay-at-home order and a renewed state-of-emergency declaration were among a list of moves the government announced Tuesday. The new measures follow new modelling warning that, within weeks, Ontario could see tens of thousands of new COVID-19 infections a day and the complete overwhelming of its critical-care capacity – even as vaccines are being rolled out.

Meanwhile, a new more contagious variant of the virus from Britain could dramatically increase the rate of growth, the numbers showed. Shady Ashamalla, a surgical oncologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre’s Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto, said the province is now entering a phase where there are not enough health care resources to offer the same standard of care for everyone.

“As the hospital fills, I will be asked to decrease the amount of surgery I can do,” Dr. Ashamalla said. “I will be forced to try to make decisions to triage which cancers are more urgent than other cancers. That is outside of evidence-based medicine.”

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He said people across the province need to understand the health care system is already overwhelmed: “This is not a warning any more. This is happening.”

The government is ordering non-essential retailers, already limited to curbside pickup, to shut at 8 p.m., and extending school closings in the worst areas of the province until Feb. 10. But medical experts said it should be doing more, such as enhancing the federal government’s $500-a-week sick pay benefit meant to encourage low-wage workers to stay home instead of working with potential COVID-19 symptoms.

Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, dean of the University of Toronto’s school of public health and head of the Ontario government’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, who presented the latest modelling, said the province’s response could have been stronger.

“It is clear from our analysis that we could have enacted stronger policies but the government has decided to strike a different balance,” Dr. Brown said in an e-mail on Wednesday. “That is their role. Ontarians elected them, not a group of scientists, to make the tough decisions.”

He said success now depends on Ontarians following the rules, and strong enforcement against those who do not. But he also said governments “need to support people to stay at home,” a reference to offering better paid sick days.

Meanwhile, Ontario said Wednesday it had requested federal aid, including military field hospitals, which Mr. Ford said would include intensive-care units. The Premier’s office did not provide additional details.

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Mr. Ford, who spoke on Wednesday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, suggested his government would again call in the Canadian Forces to the hardest-hit long-term care homes. But his office later said that wasn’t the case, with the Canadian Red Cross already in several homes in the province.

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