Premier Doug Ford is set to unveil new measures to fight the runaway spread of COVID-19 in Ontario on Tuesday, with his cabinet debating the reinstatement of a state of emergency that would give the government stronger powers to issue health orders quickly.
The government enacted a state of emergency in the first wave of the pandemic, allowing it to issue orders to close businesses and ban public gatherings without legislative approval. Last summer, it lifted the state of emergency, while keeping some of the orders it issued in place. However, those orders could only be extended or amended.
Three sources familiar with the proposals said Mr. Ford’s cabinet on Monday was considering enacting another state of emergency, along with a suite of other pandemic measures, including ordering businesses to close early, potentially by 8 p.m., as well as limiting what is sold in big-box stores. Cabinet was also expected to debate new limits on the construction and manufacturing sectors and enhanced orders to ensure people are allowed to work from home. No final decisions were made by early Monday evening.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak about the proposals publicly.
Current rules that allow grocery stores and certain big-box stores to open with capacity limits, while restricting other retailers to curbside pickup and delivery and restaurants to takeout and delivery, are expected to remain unchanged.
The Premier, warning that the situation was increasingly desperate, last week promised to show Ontarians new projections for COVID-19 infections and the effect on swamped hospitals – projections shown to cabinet on Friday. The numbers are to be released publicly on Tuesday, along with an announcement of cabinet’s decisions on new measures.
Speaking briefly to a TV camera as he entered his office at Queen’s Park on Monday morning, a masked Mr. Ford said he and his officials had worked all weekend and late into Sunday night on the proposed new measures.
With new COVID-19 infections in Ontario now at more than 3,000 a day – 3,338 new cases recorded Monday, down from 3,945 on Sunday – and the death toll now more than 5,000, Mr. Ford has been facing increasing pressure to act, even though in-person retail is already limited to groceries, pharmacies and certain big-box stores, and restaurants, bars and gyms are closed in much of the province, along with schools.
However, absent from the cabinet table on Monday was a recommendation for a curfew, as implemented in Quebec, Ontario’s associate Medical Officer of Health, Barbara Yaffe, confirmed. She said the was little evidence on the effectiveness of curfews.
Dr. Yaffe also defended the government against critics who say it has delayed bringing in tougher measures to curb the virus, saying the social and economic impact of restrictions need to be considered and measures should not be rushed through.
Dr. Yaffe said had more Ontarians followed public-health rules, infections would decrease, adding that government surveys suggest one-third of the province’s residents say they are disobeying health rules, such as by having private gatherings with people from outside their households.
Also not on Ontario’s agenda was a paid-sick day plan, repeatedly called for by municipalities and public-health experts, but opposed by Mr. Ford.
Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, issued a call for a plan to offer 10 paid sick days for workers in precarious jobs, to ensure they do not go to work with symptoms and can afford to self-isolate. Mayors across the Greater Toronto Area also repeated their pleas for a sick-pay policy, as did Toronto Mayor John Tory.
“I’m almost to the hair-lighting-on-fire time with this, where the fact there has been no response from anybody about this,” Mr. Tory said.
The Premier has in the past pointed to a federal program that offers affected workers $500 a week, something advocates say is too little to ensure people can stay home without losing a paycheque.
On Monday, the province’s Dr. Yaffe also said a sick-pay policy, along with measures to stop evictions, would help slow the spread of COVID-19.
While Mr. Ford has warned that the new modelling to be unveiled on Tuesday is shocking, opposition politicians and medical experts critics have said it has long been plain the government needed to act. On Dec. 21, the province’s modelling showed that with 3-per-cent growth, Ontario could see more than 5,000 new cases a day by the end of January – and 600 COVID-19 patients in intensive-care units. On Monday, there were 387.
Troy Day, a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 modelling table, said the new models focus on how the current strain of COVID-19 and the newly discovered and more contagious variants found in Britain and elsewhere will affect case counts, as well as hospital and critical-care capacity.
“In many ways, the story’s the same. We’re already kind of reaching capacity, very close, and things are projected to get worse,” said Dr. Day, a professor and associate head of the department of mathematics and statistics at Queen’s University. “When you throw that variant into the mix, things can get substantially worse.”
While it currently takes about 40 days for COVID-19 cases to double, if the new variant spreads and becomes dominant, that timeline could decrease to two weeks, he said. So far, only six cases of the new variant found in Britain have been identified in Ontario.
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.