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Outgoing Ontario vaccine rollout chair Gen. Rick Hillier speaks to workers at a mass vaccination centre in Toronto on March 30, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced what he calls a provincewide “shutdown” on Thursday to curb the spread of more deadly variants of COVID-19. But the new rules leave most retailers open and make few changes to the restrictions in already-locked-down areas such as Toronto and Peel Region – and critics say the move doesn’t go far enough.

The new four-week restrictions, which take effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m. ET, are similar to the province’s strictest “grey” or “lockdown” level. They will force the closing of restaurants and bars to indoor dining across Ontario, while making non-essential retailers adhere to 25-per-cent capacity limits. Indoor gatherings are limited to one household, with any outdoor gathering capped at five people.

For areas whose high COVID-19 caseloads have already landed them in grey zones – Toronto, Peel Region, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Lambton – the only major new restriction is an end to patio dining and outdoor fitness classes, the reversal of a loosening barely two weeks old. Schools in most of the province were to remain open, with a weeklong April break to proceed as scheduled. (Schools in Thunder Bay and Sudbury have been closed to in-person learning since March. Two more school boards in northwestern Ontario have said they intend to switch to online learning after the Easter weekend.)

In Doug Ford’s Ontario, COVID-19 lockdowns have become meaningless

Hair salons, which had been due to open in April in grey zones, will now remain shut, as will gyms and sports facilities (except for certain elite athletes). Weddings, funerals and religious services are allowed indoors, but at 15-per-cent capacity. Golf courses can open, but not clubhouses.

In Ontario, a chorus of doctors and medical experts and the province’s opposition leaders all warned that Mr. Ford’s measures would do too little to curb the exponential growth of the new variants. Hospitals have warned for weeks that the sharp rise in cases was poised to swamp ICUs, potentially forcing the rationing of life-saving care.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford walked the province into another lockdown by ignoring rising cases for weeks and even loosening some pandemic rules. She also called for more support for essential workers, such as improved sick pay.

“He marched us right into grave danger,” Ms. Horwath said. “It should never have come to this. The third wave didn’t have to be this horrific.”

Mr. Ford said even Thursday’s new measures sparked eight hours of debate in his cabinet and Progressive Conservative caucus on a conference call: “I told them, if we want to see, you know, the summer … we have to crunch down one more time for four weeks. It’s a sacrifice that we have to make.”

The announcement followed the release of projections Thursday morning from the government’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, made up of external academic experts.

It warned that the new more contagious variants are deadlier and infecting younger people. The spread, the numbers suggest, could drive new cases toward the 6,000-a-day mark by the end of April. That would cause the number of COVID-19 ICU patients to soar past 800, close to double the already-record tally now in the province’s strained hospitals, where hundreds of thousands of operations have been postponed.

The modelling shows a four-week “stay-at-home” order, similar to the one Ontario announced in January, would instead push cases below the 2,000-a-day level by the end of April, with ICU admissions still peaking at 800. Ontario recorded 2,557 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday.

However, the measures announced Thursday fall short of the province’s previous stay-at-home order, which also shut schools, threatened large fines for private gatherings and limited non-essential stores to curbside pickup.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government rejected imposing this kind of stay-at-home order over concerns about mental health: “We want people to be able to go outside and enjoy the outdoors, assuming that everyone continues to follow the public-health safety precautions.”

The Ontario Medical Association said in a joint statement with the umbrella organization representing Ontario’s local public-health agencies that the new measures were welcome but warned they are not enough.

Paul Roumeliotis, the medical officer of health for Eastern Ontario and chair of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health, said he and the OMA both “strongly believe” a stay-at-home order is also needed. Dr. Roumeliotis has also sat on the committee that advised Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams on what pandemic restrictions to recommend to cabinet. The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario also called for a complete lockdown and stay-at-home order to prevent the collapse of the health care system.

The government is still asking people to stay home. It said Thursday that Ontarians should “limit trips outside the home to necessities” such as those for food and medicine or exercise. The government also says employers should “make every effort to allow employees to work from home.”

More than 150 doctors who work in ICUs across the province signed an open letter to Mr. Ford, warning that patients could soon be turned away from life-saving care if the government does not do more to curb the virus’s spread: “As ICU doctors, we are the last line of defence, and we are ringing the alarm bell. Please hear it. We implore you to act now.”

Mr. Ford defended what the government calls its “emergency brake” by saying Ontario has the toughest restrictions in North America. However, Quebec – which also tightened restrictions Thursday – is under curfew and has banned private visits, including outdoors. The provincial capital and other areas have closed schools, non-essential shops and services, and limited religious gatherings to 25 people.

Ontario’s Premier also said the government is also extending a deadline, until April 7, for small businesses affected by lockdowns to seek support grants of up to $40,000. But the province’s small-business community was livid on Thursday about the new measures, arguing that blanket lockdowns have failed to stem the tide of cases.

“Small businesses are tired of being a scapegoat for the Ontario government’s lack of planning or foresight,” said Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “To continue the same broken approach is a choice.”

Andrew Morris, an infectious-diseases physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, called the government’s announcement “disappointing” and said it will lead to “unnecessary” hospitalizations and even deaths, while doing little to help in Toronto and Peel.

“It’s going to prolong this wave, which is going to threaten many other things including eventually kids being taken out of school,” Dr. Morris said.

Meanwhile in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney painted a dire picture on Thursday of the situation in his province, with more-contagious variants expected to soon make up the majority of new infections and hospital admissions expected to shoot upward.

But Mr. Kenney declined to follow the lead of places such as B.C. and Ontario with new restrictions. Instead, he pleaded with people to follow the rules.

“We have very strong measures in place right now and what we’re calling on Albertans to do is to respect those measures,” he told a news conference. “What we’re seeing is a growing number of people who are not complying with the restrictions that are already there.”

- With files from Les Perreaux in Montreal, James Keller in Calgary and Oliver Moore in Toronto

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