On the morning of Oct. 9, Premier Doug Ford arrived at Queen’s Park looking exhausted.
It was the day Mr. Ford had been dreading: His government would be imposing new restrictions on the population-rich areas of Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa. Indoor dining, cinemas and gyms – among other things – would be closed for at least 28 days, as COVID-19 cases rose in the province yet again.
“I can’t stress enough ... how difficult, how painful it was to make this decision,” a deflated Mr. Ford said at the microphone.
Four days later, an entirely different message was emanating from another high-profile conservative leader, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. In a clip shared widely on social media, Mr. Kenney railed against lockdowns and “aggressive” enforcement, saying he wouldn’t “micromanage people’s lives.”
“I want as much as humanly possible us to maintain our approach, which is focused on people exercising personal responsibility,” Mr. Kenney said.
Mr. Ford’s former principal secretary, Jenni Byrne, retweeted the Alberta Premier’s message with an emphatic, “Hear! Hear!”
The country’s two leading provincial conservative figures have taken drastically different approaches to COVID-19 – ones that could determine the health and economic outcomes in their respective provinces for years to come.
The decisions are emblematic of both the distinctive political climates but also the wildly divergent governing styles of the two leaders, which have come to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as Alberta posts roughly double the active cases per population as Ontario, Mr. Kenney has imposed few restrictions, while Mr. Ford has severely limited businesses in the largest cities over the past month.
In doing so, Mr. Ford risks alienating his key supporters: both the business community and fellow conservatives. And Mr. Kenney, experts warn, could quickly set off a public-health disaster if the situation gets out of control.
Mr. Ford on Friday appeared to waver in his approach, facing pressure from business groups and from within his own cabinet and caucus. After seeing new data modelling suggesting the growth of COVID-19 cases is slowing, Mr. Ford said he asked his public-health experts to craft a plan to potentially ease restrictions when they expire in hot-spot regions in November. “This can’t go on indefinitely,” the Premier said.
The differences in the two leaders are both ideological – Mr. Ford is not viewed as a traditional conservative and does not have Mr. Kenney’s long history in party politics – and situational. Even before the pandemic, Alberta was coping with an economic downturn that was exacerbated by an oil crash in March. In Ontario, Mr. Ford leads a much larger and more diverse population, and is subject to the whims of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, whose officials pushed for much stricter restrictions early on.
“Kenney and Ford are trying to appeal to two very different constituencies,” said Conservative strategist Kate Harrison, vice-president at Summa Strategies in Ottawa. “There are certainly conservatives who would like to see a more pro-active approach and fewer restrictions and lockdowns.”
Those close to Mr. Ford acknowledge the rookie Premier has expended a tremendous amount of political capital among his base and in the Progressive Conservative caucus, which has pushed back against sweeping restrictions and particularly, what they view as insufficient or inconclusive data to back them up.
Despite the internal criticism, senior aides say Mr. Ford made a decision early on in the pandemic to listen to provincial health advisers, knowing his own limitations. He’s also the only provincial leader in the country who does daily televised briefings, and to the consternation of his staff, takes phone calls from the public. He is the face of Ontario’s pandemic response and will wear it, the good and bad.
Melissa Lantsman, who sits on Mr. Ford’s re-election committee and ran his campaign war room in 2018, said the Premier’s performance during the pandemic has allowed him to reshape the public’s perception of him. Mr. Ford has succeeded in breaking through because, “he hasn’t used the babble of the health bureaucracy. He’s talked about the problems that you and I face.”
While Mr. Ford has won over public polls during the pandemic, Ontario’s business community is growing increasingly frustrated by the restrictions.
Ryan Mallough, director of Ontario provincial affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the government’s lack of clarity and consistency has been a key gripe of small businesses. The decision to reopen dance studios after significant pressure, for instance, sparked anger from other fitness owners who questioned why the government was leaving them out. A promised $300-million aid package, Mr. Mallough said, has also not yet been rolled out.
“I’m at the very least hoping Ontario is looking at what other jurisdictions, including Alberta, are doing, and at least justifying why it can’t be done here,” he said.
Mr. Kenney, meanwhile, has spent months arguing that the pandemic is manageable without returning to widespread lockdowns, which he has rejected as worse than the disease. In addition to the economic toll, he also points to the strain on people’s physical and mental health, and a sharp increase in opioid overdoses.
Instead, he has cast COVID-19 as primarily a disease of the elderly, repeatedly noting the average age of people who die of the disease in Alberta has been higher than the province’s life expectancy. The current average for COVID-19 deaths, 82, is the same as the province’s life expectancy.
Mr. Kenney has boasted that Alberta has taken a less-strict approach than other Canadian jurisdictions, ordering fewer businesses closed in the spring and opening up sooner, and more quickly, than other provinces over the summer.
The province did that, the Premier argued, while keeping infections and hospital admissions lower than other “large provinces,” including Ontario and Quebec. But he can no longer make that claim.
Alberta has nearly 5,000 active cases, nearly twice the per-capita rate of Ontario and slightly ahead of Quebec. Only Manitoba has a higher rate, with Winnipeg on Friday headed into a lockdown. Quebec announced this week it would keep most restaurants, bars and fitness centres closed for another month.
Alberta’s rates of new daily infections and hospitalizations are both significantly higher than in Ontario, and cases in Alberta are increasing more quickly. Edmonton in particular has become a hot spot for infections and Alberta confirmed 622 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, by far a new daily record.
Currently, there are few restrictions on businesses or other activities in Alberta. The only types of businesses still facing blanket closings are nightclubs and amusement parks.
But unlike in Ontario, there appears to be little appetite for renewed shutdowns. Local governments in Calgary and elsewhere have stressed the need to keep businesses open and have urged the public to heed health advice to ensure that happens. The Opposition NDP has said the focus should be on expanding testing and contact tracing to avoid shutdowns, while also suggesting that “targeted” restrictions could be needed if increased monitoring flags problem areas.
Dr. Joe Vipond, an emergency physician and organizer with the group Masks4Canada, one of the few voices in Alberta calling for new shutdowns, said the focus should be on places where people are unmasked and close together in spaces with poor ventilation – such as restaurants, bars and gyms.
“We need to have periods of time where we do have public-health restrictions to allow us to get back under control,” he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases specialist at Toronto’s University Health Network who hails from Alberta, said that province will soon be facing the same decision Ontario made several weeks ago.
“The big question that lies ahead is, in the face of rising cases and perhaps the potential for increased pressure on their health care system, will they pivot and add additional public-health measures?” he said. “I just don’t know. We’ll see.”
With a report from Jeff Gray in Toronto
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect number for Alberta's new cases on Friday. It was 622, not 662.