Manitoba is imposing the strictest lockdown of the second wave of COVID-19 in Canada while the country’s largest city is extending a ban on indoor dining in its restaurants in an effort to halt a surge of infections that is swamping much of the country.
In an attempt to cut off the rapid spread of the virus, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday a shutdown of in-person retail shopping except for grocery stores and pharmacies, the restriction of bars and restaurants to take-out or delivery, and bans on all social gatherings, religious services and sports for four weeks. Schools are to remain open.
Manitoba registered 383 new cases on Tuesday, and now has the highest per-capita infection rate of any province. More than 10 per cent of all COVID-19 tests in Manitoba have come back positive on average over the past five days – well past the 3-per-cent level experts say indicates a dangerous level of spread. The province also currently has the worst record in the country for active cases and hospitalizations, with numbers far higher than the hotspots of Alberta and Quebec and several times greater than in Ontario.
"We need to flatten our COVID curve and we need to do that now,” Mr. Pallister said.
In Toronto, as the city recorded a second straight record day with more than 500 new COVID-19 cases, Mayor John Tory and Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa announced that a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and bars would be extended for another 28 days. The new orders also prohibit indoor fitness classes but allow gyms to reopen with a 10-person limit.
The city had been set to switch to the province’s new framework of restrictions, with a ban on indoor dining imposed by the province set to expire this weekend. Under the province’s new system, Toronto is classified as a “red zone,” but restaurants and bars would have been allowed to serve a maximum of 10 customers at time.
Before the province imposed the existing temporary indoor dining ban on Toronto and other virus hotspots last month, Dr. de Villa had pleaded with Queen’s Park to act, citing legal advice that using her own powers as Medical Officer of Health to bring in similar rules for Toronto could leave her personally liable.
But on Tuesday she said the pandemic had become so serious she had no choice but to make her own health orders despite that legal advice, noting that test positivity rates have soared from just 1.3 per cent in September to 5.9 per cent over the first week of this month.
“What’s changed here … is the urgency of the situation,” she said. “The legal advice really hasn’t [changed] but we are seeing more spread of COVID-19, we’re seeing rates we’ve never seen before.”
Mr. Tory pointed to the even worse situation in nearby Peel Region, west of Toronto, where hospitals are struggling to meet demand and where local public-health officials announced their own additional measures on Monday, as evidence that Toronto needed to act.
“We can’t afford to get to that situation in the city of Toronto, or even a worse situation where another lockdown becomes necessary,” he said. “We need a pre-emptive strike to avoid giving up all of the progress we had made confronting the virus.”
Dr. de Villa is also urging residents to spend time only with people in their own household, a recommendation that does not carry the weight of law. She also advised residents to only leave home for essential reasons: work, buying food or medicine, seeking medical care and exercise.
Ontario’s new colour-coded system for reopenings has been criticized by epidemiologists for loosening restrictions in hotspots even as cases rise. Premier Doug Ford says he is trying to balance the needs of small businesses with public health.
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged premiers and mayors across the country not to loosen COVID-19 restrictions for the sake of the economy and suggested localized shutdowns are needed in areas seeing a surge in cases.
“I would hope that no leader in our country is easing public-health vigilance because they feel pressure not to shut down businesses or slow down our economy,” Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa.
He added that his government had provided financial support to make it easier to shut down when needed. However, its rent-subsidy program for businesses is not yet place. Mr. Trudeau also said he did not see a need to step in “right now” with federal emergency powers if provinces do not act.
Mr. Ford, who appeared alongside Mr. Tory at a press conference earlier on Tuesday, called on Mr. Trudeau to offer more financial support for pandemic-affected businesses. He also said he would not rule out stricter lockdown measures.
“I can’t rule out anything,” Mr. Ford said. “I think we’ve shown before in the beginning of this pandemic, if it needs to be done, we do it.”
Debate has raged over just how effective the 28-day ban on indoor dining, imposed in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York Regions in Ontario, has been in curbing the disease.
Toronto’s Dr. de Villa laid out data on Tuesday suggesting the ban had dramatically slowed the transmission among young people living in the city’s condo and bar-and-restaurant dense downtown.
In the central Waterfront Communities-Island area, she said, from Sept. 18 to Oct. 10, the case rate was 275 per 100,000 people. After indoor dining was banned, that rate plummeted. By the week of Nov. 8, it had fallen to 49 per 100,000 people. In Little Portugal, another downtown neighbourhood full of young people and restaurants, the case rate fell from 604 per 100,000 people to 77 per 100,000 people.
However, according to a Globe and Mail analysis, as cases dropped near the downtown, they rose again in poor and racialized areas of northwest Toronto and North Scarborough, where several neighbourhoods saw large jumps. For example, the Scarborough neighbourhood of Rouge, which borders Pickering, logged 234 cases in the last three weeks, up from 39 in the three weeks leading up to Sept. 28.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has resisted the idea of shutting down businesses or going back into a lockdown, relying largely on voluntary measures and arguing that such restrictions represent “massive” infringements of people’s rights that do more harm than good.
Alberta added 713 new infections on Tuesday and seven deaths. There were 207 people in hospital, including 43 in intensive care – both records since the pandemic began.
Dozens of hospital physicians and infectious disease experts wrote to Mr. Kenny this week, urging him to implement a two-week lockdown to act as a “circuit breaker” to curb infections, warning of “catastrophic” consequences if the province continues on its current course.
With files from James Keller, Marieke Walsh, Kelly Grant, Chen Wang and The Canadian Press
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