Progressive Conservative MPPs are publicly pushing back against the Ontario government’s COVID-19 restrictions, demanding medical officials give clear criteria to justify further closures and restrictions.
In a letter sent to Ontario’s top doctor, David Williams, on Saturday, two MPPs from Halton region, west of Toronto, say the government risks losing the confidence of the public by imposing further restrictions without clear guidelines.
“During the height of COVID-19, the majority of Ontarians accepted unprecedented restrictions in order to stop the spread and flatten the curve,” the letter said. “Now, nearly seven months later the public is demanding more than just the blanket statement of ‘on the advice of medical experts.’”
The letter, which is also copied to Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott, is signed by Burlington MPP Jane McKenna, Milton MPP Parm Gill, Burlington and Milton’s mayors and the chair of Halton region.
Mr. Ford said Friday his government could announce whether Halton and Durham Regions – or other areas – will join Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York Region with new restrictions under a “modified stage 2,” such as an indoor dining ban, as early as Monday.
The letter comes as Ontario marked a record day for new COVID-19 infections, with 978 across the province and six new deaths. The province conducted more than 44,000 tests – still shy of its goal of 50,000 tests a day.
Of the new cases, 348 were in Toronto, 170 in Peel Region, 141 in York Region, 89 in Ottawa and 51 in Durham Region.
Halton Region, however, recorded 21 new cases, down from 34 the day before. The letter said Halton has averaged 30 cases a day over the past two weeks, and hospitalizations have remained low.
Premier’s office spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said the province is working closely with local medical officers of health to control the spread of COVID-19.
She said the province continues to review trends such as contact tracing, outbreaks, increases in hospitalization and intensive care unit admissions, and testing capacity.
“While the numbers in Halton are concerning, we are working very hard to control the spread of the virus as much as possible,” Ms. Yelich said. “As we have done in the past, we will continue to provide a clear account of the data and evidence if and when a region needs to be moved into modified Stage 2.”
The letter said there is “no evidence to suggest” moving Halton to a modified stage 2, which includes closing gyms and limiting team sports, will have any meaningful impact on case counts. It said residents are asking that officials target activities and locations that pose the highest risk of transmission, as opposed to imposing blanket measures.
“In these unprecedented times, individuals and businesses need to have some level of predictability and stability,” the letter said. “This is why we are also calling on you to clearly define the criteria used to determine when further restrictions or rollbacks are required, as well as the criteria that must be met for lifting any restrictions or rollbacks.”
In a phone interview, Ms. McKenna said she felt obligated to write the letter after receiving many calls from people and businesses who want to know why Halton Region could face a rollback into restrictions, given its relatively low COVID-19 numbers and the fact that its hospitals have just a handful of patients suffering from the disease.
“If I am driving and the speed limit’s 50 and I am going 70 and I get pulled over, I understand the consequences for that,” Ms. McKenna said. “All we are trying to do is find out what the speed limit is.”
She says supports Mr. Ford and his leadership in the pandemic “110 per cent.” But she said felt she had responsibility as an MPP, given her residents' concerns, to ask Dr. Williams to lay out the criteria for imposing restrictions, as the Premier says he relies on the advice of his Chief Medical Officer of Health. Critics of the government in the medical community have also been calling for the government to publish clear benchmarks.
Her letter also says Halton’s own Medical Officer of Health, Hamidah Meghani, has been urging Dr. Williams to bring in more restrictions for her region, fearing its numbers would rising exponentially. But Ms. McKenna said this was her understanding as of a week ago and that she has not spoken to Dr. Meghani about Halton’s latest case-count numbers.
A spokeswoman for Halton Region referred to a recent letter from Dr. Meghani calling for a suspension of all indoor fitness classes and to limit team sports to training only. She also encouraged residents to dine at restaurants with only people from one’s household, and to order take-out instead.
“We have learned that many cases are linked to private social gatherings and group activities,” Dr. Meghani wrote on Oct. 19.
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath blamed Saturday’s record-high infection number on Mr. Ford, accusing him of failing to spend $9-billion in funding earmarked for COVID-19. (The government says it plans to spend the money.)
“It never should have come to this,” Ms. Horwath said in a statement. “Doug Ford’s refusal to invest in stopping the growth of the second wave is costing us so much more – it’s costing people their health and their lives, it’s hurting small businesses and it’s making the second wave longer and deeper.”
In a separate letter addressed to Mr. Ford, Halton’s regional chairman, Gary Carr and the mayors of the region’s municipalities of Burlington, Halton Hills, Milton and Oakville also ask for a “targeted approach” and warn against any “blanket shutdown order.”
Halton’s medical officer of health, that letter notes, has already imposed restrictions on team sports, similar to those in place in Toronto and other hotspots, after reports of outbreaks in those settings. The letter said the regional council officials could work the province to address any issues in other sectors with local bylaws.
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