Ontario Premier Doug Ford is extending his province’s stay-at-home order until at least June 2 as new COVID-19 infection numbers decline, while keeping schools shut and dismissing calls from medical experts to reopen outdoor activities such as golf that many consider relatively safe.
The Premier, who has faced a backlash over his government’s previous failure to follow recommendations from its science advisers in the third wave, also used the announcement to repeat his recent warnings that the federal government has done too little to tighten border controls, allowing more contagious variants of COVID-19 into Canada.
“I know we’re all eager to get back to some sense of normal,” Mr. Ford said. “But at a time when contagious variants cause real risks to our province, we can’t rush to reopen.”
Ontario’s original month-long stay-at-home order, which shut restaurants and non-essential shopping, had been set to expire May 20. Since it was imposed, daily new COVID-19 case counts have declined, hitting 2,759 on Thursday – down from a pandemic peak on April 16 of 4,812. There were 31 new deaths. The number of COVID-19 patients in Ontario’s intensive-care units has also gone down, but remained well above crisis levels, at 775, with 37 new admissions.
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Speaking alongside the Premier, the provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, repeated his recent assertion that daily new cases would need to fall “well below” 1,000, and stay there for a period of time, before further reopening is possible. He said ICU numbers would also need to show a steep decline.
Schools were to stay online for now, the Premier said. And it remains unclear if Ontario students can return to classrooms before the school year ends.
Mr. Ford said that while some doctors have called for a return to school, teachers’ unions oppose the idea, with one he said potentially seeking a court injunction. He said the province needed “consensus” before reopening classes.
Dr. Williams said there were “live discussions” with local public-health units about whether they could handle the increase in contact tracing that would come with any school reopening.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the Premier’s comments blaming teacher unions for keeping schools closed were “ludicrous.” He said reopening schools was up to the Minister of Education, not the unions, adding the government has “flatly refused” to work with educators on how to reopen schools safely.
(Mr. Bischof’s union did file an application for an injunction in early April as COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing, demanding that York Region Public Health close schools there, as neighbouring Toronto and Peel Region had done, so school staff could be vaccinated. He said the union withdrew the application after the province moved all Ontario schools online.)
Medical experts have criticized the province’s insistence on shutting down outdoor activities – such as golf, tennis and basketball – given the much lower risks of catching the virus outside.Last month, the government quickly lifted a ban on playgrounds after an outcry, but other facilities remained closed.
Mr. Ford said he believed it would be possible to reopen outdoor activities after June 2, if the numbers keep going in the right direction. He suggested the problem with golfers was their tendency to gather for a drink after a day on the links.
David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and member of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table who has been critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic, said he agrees with the two-week extension of the stay-at-home order but thinks outdoor activities should open sooner.
“It seems about right. … I think you want to do things and then see how it goes and reassess at intervals of about two weeks or 10 days,” he said. “One wishes they would let people get a bit of a break on the outdoor stuff, which is pretty harmless.”
The Premier said his goal was for “as normal a July and August as possible,” but warned there would be no concerts or large sports events.
Dr. Williams said health officials were trying to understand what effect the growing vaccination totals – expected to hit 65 per cent of adults by the end of May – would have on the number of new infections and hospitalizations. He said any reopening would be slow, comparing it to a “dimmer switch.”
He acknowledged the government reopened too quickly after the second wave ended and the third wave began. “We didn’t get all the way out of the second wave before we went into the third wave,” Dr. Williams said. “We do not want to repeat that again.”
Ivana Yelich, Mr. Ford’s director of media relations, said officials are beginning to work on an “exit plan” from COVID-19 restrictions. But she said the government’s previous colour-coded framework, which assigned different levels of restrictions to different regions based on case counts, hospitalizations and positivity rates, will not be part of the new strategy.
Business groups were not happy with Thursday’s announcement, saying the province needed to provide more notice and clarity about when businesses could reopen. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce said there should be a clear threshold from the province on when reopening will be allowed, while the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the province should also provide new financial supports for businesses now facing a longer shutdown.
Asked if his focus on the border was an attempt to distract from the criticism his own government has faced in recent weeks, Mr. Ford said he had been raising the issue for months.He warned that Ottawa’s failure to address loopholes that allow some travellers to avoid mandatory three-day hotel quarantine stays – including private jet passengers and people flying into Buffalo and then crossing by land – mean new “vaccine-resistant” variants could jeopardize Ontario’s reopening plans and fuel a fourth wave.
Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking to Toronto news station CP24, accused Mr. Ford of trying to “point fingers” on border issues, claiming Ontario has not followed up with details on its requests for travel restrictions.
“It just unfortunate that Doug Ford continues to play politics,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Asked about the province’s move this week to pause its use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine amid concerns over rare blood clots, Dr. Williams said Ontario was still awaiting data on the effectiveness of mixing two different vaccines while studying the data suggesting that second doses of AstraZeneca were still very low risk.
Mr. Ford, who has had a first shot of the vaccine, said he had no qualms about getting his second: “If they have AstraZeneca, I’ll take my second shot in a second.”
With reports from Caroline Alphonso and Chris Hannay
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