Toronto recorded its first “presumptive” case of COVID-19 on Jan. 25, a man in his fifties who had come from Wuhan, China. By Thursday, just over three months later, it had recorded 5,551 cases and 366 deaths. Those are shocking numbers.
Remember that the city had just 375 cases of SARS in 2003 and 44 deaths. Toronto was shaken by that event. This one is paralyzing it. Canada’s biggest city – the engine of the provincial economy, the headquarters of many of the country’s top companies, the centre of the financial industry, a magnet for immigrants from around the world – has ground, like much of the world, to a juddering halt.
Its ordinarily packed highways carry a fraction of the traffic. Many of its buses, streetcars and subway cars travel mostly empty. A host of city events and festivals have been cancelled, from the Pride parade to the Caribbean Carnival. A state of emergency declared by Mayor John Tory on March 23 for the first time in Toronto’s history has just been extended for the duration of the crisis.
Dozens of care homes have been stricken by coronavirus outbreaks. Shelters have been hit, too. The city is embarking on a massive effort to move shelter users to hotels and other housing.
And yet there is hope. When city council held an unprecedented online meeting on Thursday, Eileen de Villa, the Medical Officer of Health, told councillors the curve was flattening. The figures bear her out. The city does not have as many cases as it once feared. Hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Montreal, with 13,324 cases and 1,146 deaths, is in much worse shape.
That is no comfort, but it does help put Toronto’s situation in perspective. The very worst has been avoided. Mr. Tory says there is now reason for cautious optimism. Premier Doug Ford says that Ontario as a whole is “winning this fight.”
Like everyone else, they carefully add that the struggle against COVID-19 is not over. Far from it. Ontario is behind many other provinces in terms of the proportion of the population tested. Toronto has struggled to keep up with the need for contact tracing – tracking down those associated with people who have tested positive. Dr. de Villa would like to see more testing and more progress in care homes. She wants to see “sustained” progress at reducing cases before Toronto embarks on a large-scale reopening.
Still, the signs are encouraging enough that Toronto is starting to think hard about when and how that reopening happens. The city has appointed two respected public servants, Saad Rafi and David Mowat, to guide it.
Toronto might start by loosening restrictions on parks and other public spaces. Police and bylaw officers have been extra vigilant about physical distancing, going as far as to ticket people for sitting on park benches. City hall has even closed one of Toronto’s most popular rambling places, High Park, during the annual cherry-blossom viewing.
It’s time to start easing up. The risk of infection spreading among people who are simply passing each other during a walk in the park is low. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, calls it “infinitesimally small” and asks people to “please go outside.”
Provincial authorities could also start allowing elective surgeries and other suspended hospital procedures to resume. Thousands of people are waiting for things like hip and knee replacements that were put off to make sure hospitals could cope with a possible coronavirus tsunami.
Next would come workplaces. Ontario has just released guidelines that advise companies to attempt measures like physical distancing in offices, staggered work shifts and outdoor meetings. Ontario is letting garden centres and lawn-care companies open under certain restrictions. More construction projects are getting a green light to proceed.
Reopening will come with risks, of course. The prospect of a second wave of infection is on everyone’s mind. It may be a long while indeed before people gather again for concerts or movies or street parties.
But the risks have to be measured against the effects of keeping a teeming metropolis all but shuttered for weeks or months to come. The big lockdown is threatening countless enterprises and hurting all sorts of people, especially the most vulnerable. Businesses are going bankrupt. Many tenants can’t pay this month’s rent. A lockdown of this scale causes health problems all its own.
If the hopeful trends continue, the authorities should lift it with all possible speed.
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