Ontario is expected to go into a province-wide lockdown on Christmas Eve as the government tries to gain control of a surge in COVID-19 cases in the most densely populated parts of the province.
Premier Doug Ford is set announce the lockdown on Monday. Multiple sources told The Globe and Mail the details have not yet been finalized and the decision was the subject of intense internal debate.
Current lockdown rules prohibit the opening of indoor dining, hair salons, and gyms, and only allow for in-person shopping at essential and big box stores. Those rules are already in effect in the Greater Toronto Area. However, under the new lockdown, the rules could become even stricter.
As of Sunday evening, cabinet had decided to impose a four-week lockdown on the southern and eastern parts of the province effective Dec. 24 at 12:01 a.m. That will include the Toronto area and Ottawa. Three sources said areas north of the French River, including Sudbury, will be subject only to a two-week lockdown.
The Globe is not disclosing the names of the sources as they were not permitted to discuss the internal deliberations publicly.
The Premier’s Office on Sunday declined to comment.
Three sources said Mr. Ford will announce a one-week delay in the return to classes for elementary-school-aged children and that high schools will not return to in-class learning until the four-week lockdown is lifted.
On Sunday, the province reported 25 new deaths and a daily increase in cases of 2,316 – the sixth straight day of more than 2,000 daily new COVID-19 cases. Hospitals in the hard-hit Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are already cancelling scheduled surgeries because of a lack of beds and staff.
In the last week, Ontario has reported the biggest overall increase in new cases across the country, but on a per-capita-basis case growth has been slower than the rate in the Prairie provinces and Quebec.
Two sources told The Globe there were deep divisions among cabinet ministers on whether to shut down the entire province, and over the decision to keep certain areas, such as eastern Ontario, in the four-week lockdown because of how differently the epidemic is playing out across the province.
For example, on Sunday, Toronto reported an increase of 548 new cases while Ottawa, which has one-third of the population, reported just 39 new cases. Similarly, Toronto has 299 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 85 of them are in intensive care while in Ottawa 18 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and none of them are in ICU.
Despite those differences, a source said cabinet chose to go with a broader lockdown because people from areas already in lockdown have been travelling to other regions and more travel is expected over the holidays.
The changes mean there will be no in-person Boxing Day shopping anywhere in Ontario this year. On Sunday, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business warned the lockdown will lead to the demise of thousands of businesses.
On Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam called on provinces that are harder hit by the pandemic to invoke stricter rules to try and slow the growth in cases. Her advice followed urging from the Ontario Hospital Association.
Last week, the group called for more regions to be locked down and for even stricter restrictions in lockdown zones. Hospital leaders met with Mr. Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott on Friday. After that gathering, the association said it was “hopeful” the government would heed its advice.
The current rules for lockdown zones prohibit indoor gatherings with anyone from outside of one’s household, unless they live alone. Although the rules currently permit outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, with physical distancing, health officials have been pleading with people not to gather with anyone from outside of their household during the holidays.
The Medical Officers of Health from seven regions, including Toronto, Peel, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex, on Sunday issued a joint statement telling people not to hold social gatherings over the holidays either indoors or outdoors. However, they say those living alone, including seniors, can have exclusive contact with one other household to prevent social isolation.
Two sources said the specific rules for the lockdown could become even stricter. For example, items still being considered as of Sunday evening included whether to change rules around skiing, skating and curb-side pickup at retail outlets.
Lockdown zones currently shutter in-person retail shopping but allow grocers, pharmacies, hardware stores and liquor outlets to operate at 50-per-cent capacity. Big box stores selling essential items – such as Costco and Walmart – have been permitted to stay open, a move decried by small businesses and department stores as unfair. Gyms and personal-care services, such as hair salons, are also closed, and restaurants are only allowed to offer takeout and delivery.
On Friday, Ontario extended current lockdowns in Toronto and Peel Region, which includes the cities of Brampton and Mississauga, until at least Jan. 4, and said Hamilton will go into lockdown on Monday.
Windsor-Essex and York Region – which includes the municipalities of Markham, Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Newmarket – also went into lockdown on Dec. 14.
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