Skip to main content

Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, responds to a question, as Ontario Premier Doug Ford listens, during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

The stubborn growth of new COVID-19 infections has prompted Ontario to put two more regions into its grey, or “lockdown,” level of restrictions, despite pleas from businesses, local politicians and in one case, the objections of a local medical officer of health.

Both York Region, a sprawling suburb north of Toronto, and Windsor-Essex County, in the province’s southwest, will join Toronto and Peel Region under the province’s highest level of restrictions on Monday at 12:01 a.m.

According to provincial figures, Ontario recorded 1,848 new infections on Friday, with Toronto at 469, Peel at 386 and York with 205. Windsor-Essex had 106.

The moves appeared to pour cold water on efforts by lobbyists for retailers and small businesses to convince the province to soften its existing lockdown measures and allow stores deemed non-essential to reopen with limited capacity, in order to salvage the crucial holiday shopping season.

Under lockdown in Ontario’s COVID-19 framework, only stores that sell groceries, drugs or hardware can open for shopping, with a 50-per-cent capacity limit. Most other retailers are forced to offer only curbside pickup or delivery. Restaurants are restricted to takeout or delivery. Gyms and hair salons must also close. Many complain that the rules penalize small stores, while allowing big-box outlets to stay open.

Despite daily infection counts that often run third to the totals in Toronto and Peel – which both entered 28-day lockdowns on Nov. 23 – York Region had actively resisted moving into the province’s grey zone.

Karim Kurji, York Region’s Medical Officer of Health, said he had made the case at a meeting on Tuesday with David Williams, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, arguing that the province should let his region stay in its current lower red-zone restrictions.

In an interview, Dr. Kurji said he thought York could get its numbers down by continuing efforts to crack down on outbreaks in manufacturing facilities and by closely tracking the contacts of new cases. But he said he respected the province’s decision, as infections in younger people have risen markedly and hospitals are strained.

“I have a lot of respect for the people at the province, many of whom are colleagues with whom I have worked for decades,” Dr. Kurji said. “And they have a tough job to do.”

The move prompted one of York Region’s Progressive Conservative MPPs, Gila Martow of Thornhill, to speak out against her own government over the lockdown. Ms. Martow, who is seeking the local federal Conservative nomination, singled out her opponent in the race, Melissa Lantsman, a former senior campaign operative for Ontario Premier Doug Ford and a lobbyist.

“Big-box retailers like Walmart should not be allowed to enrich themselves on the backs of small businesses simply because they can afford to hire well-connected lobbyists like Melissa Lantsman to get them preferential treatment,” Ms. Martow said in a letter posted on Twitter.

Frank Scarpitti, the mayor of Markham, York Region’s largest city, said he respected the decision. But he said he would continue calling for changes to help struggling small businesses.

The lockdown in Windsor-Essex comes a day after the medical officer of health there temporarily moved all the county’s schools to online learning as of Monday, in an effort to slow transmission of the virus.

Mr. Ford, speaking at a press conference where more details about the province’s vaccine rollout were revealed, called the situation “very, very serious” and said the province must stay vigilant even as the vaccines provide a light at the end of the tunnel.

The province is also moving Middlesex-London, Simcoe-Muskoka and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph into its red or “control” category, the second strictest level of pandemic measures, which includes limiting restaurants to 10 patrons at a time.

Diane Brisebois, president and chief executive officer of the Retail Council of Canada – which acts for small, medium-sized and large retailers across the country – said her group’s proposal to allow all stores to reopen with 20-per-cent capacity has so far made little headway.

“Look, Christmas, this is the season,” Ms. Brisebois said. “And we’re counting the days now. Every day is another nail in the coffin. There’s very little time.”

The new lockdowns followed the release by the province’s scientific advisors of updated modelling this week that showed cases continuing to rise rapidly, particularly among people who cannot work from home, and those who live in multigenerational households. The data also suggested that the current lockdowns were not as effective at curtailing movement outside the home as the measures enacted in the spring.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.