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A healthcare worker pauses during a lull in visitors at a COVID-19 testing centre in Toronto, Dec. 20, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario should not wait until Boxing Day to lock down the province, hospitals warned on Monday, while municipalities with low COVID-19 case counts said it is unfair to include them in the new restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Although reports on the weekend said the government would begin the shutdown on Christmas Eve, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said businesses need more time to prepare.

“We can’t do it overnight,” Mr. Ford said. “We need to give them an opportunity to get this done. ... The quicker we get through this, the quicker businesses can open up, the quicker we can get life back to normal.”

The head of the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA), which had been calling for stricter measures across much of the province, said he was “surprised and disappointed” that the restrictions won’t take effect for five days.

“People across the province need clear public health communication, and the Dec. 26 implementation date sends a confusing message about what they should and shouldn’t do at this crucial moment,” said Anthony Dale, the OHA’s president and chief executive officer.

“We are already hearing from hospital and health system leaders who are shocked that the restrictions will not come into effect until after Christmas.”

Lockdown isn’t the Christmas present Ontario wanted. But it’s the present Ontario needs

The shutdown, which will close schools and some businesses, begins on Dec. 26 at 12:01 am. It will last 28 days - until Jan. 23 - in Southern Ontario, but only 14 days in the north, the area north of the French River, which includes Sudbury.

The parts of the province with the highest case counts, including Toronto and Peel Region, will not have further significant new restrictions.

The province’s science advisory group on Monday said a “hard lockdown” of four to six weeks is necessary to drive down the rising number of cases in intensive care units, warning occupancy could hit 1,500 people by mid-January. On Monday, Ontario reported 17 new deaths and a daily increase in cases of 2,316 – the seventh straight day with more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases.

Like the government’s current rules, the shutdown bans indoor gatherings, closes indoor dining in restaurants, personal services and fitness centres, and limits grocery stores and pharmacies to 50 per cent of their capacity. The new measures reduce capacity levels at big box stores that sell groceries to 25 per cent from 50 per cent - meaning they can still open for Boxing Day shopping - and move hardware stores to online only. The government is also prohibiting ski hills from operating, but allowing other outdoor recreational activities.

As part of the new measures, schools will go online-only for elementary students in the south and all students in the north until Jan. 11, and until Jan. 25 for high-school students in the south. Daycares will remain open, although during the time when elementary schools are closed, they are prohibited from allowing school-aged children.

Educators on Monday expressed concern about the impact of online schooling on children’s “mental health and learning progress,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

Ottawa community leaders and residents on Monday expressed outrage that the city - which on Monday reported only 31 new cases, no ICU cases and a total of 19 in hospital - would be included in the shutdown.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said the province had “completely blindsided” the city’s residents and small businesses. Pointing out that Ottawa has “the best numbers of any large Canadian city,” Mr. Watson said “there are simply no facts to support a lockdown” in the capital region. Instead, he raised concerns that a rush to prepare for the Boxing Day deadline would create more risk than maintaining the status quo.

Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, Vera Etches, added that she mentioned to provincial officials “the important role that schools play” in children’s mental health and allowing parents to keep working.

Forgiving ineligible CERB recipients would be unfair to Canadians who followed the rules

Mr. Ford said he understands Ottawa’s position, but that he feared Quebeckers would come across the border in “droves” if Ottawa’s businesses were open, and numbers would be driven back up. The Premier also tried to share the blame for the high COVID-19 case count in Ontario with the federal government, saying that not testing international travellers as they arrive in Canada leaves a gap in the system.

In response to the Premier’s comments, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu noted that only 1.3 per cent of cases in Ontario are linked to international travel and Canada requires all cross-border travellers to quarantine for 14 days.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, however, thanked the provincial government for bringing in stricter measures, and said the onus is now on individuals to act responsibly.

The mayor and the city’s Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, again urged Torontonians not to celebrate the holidays except with people in their immediate household. Those who live alone, however, have been told they can join another close household.

At Calabogie Peaks Resort, 100 kilometres west of Ottawa, chief operating officer Jim Hemlin was bracing to deliver news of layoffs. He estimated that the four week closing during this peak winter period will cost the hill one-third of its revenue, a particular blow after it spent $350,000 on a new online ticketing system to prevent crowded line-ups and about half a million on snow-making, and lost March Break during the spring lockdown.

Ontario also on Monday announced new grants of $10,000 to $20,000 to eligible small businesses that close or “significantly restrict services” because of the shutdown. Many in the business community warned that the new lockdown measures unfairly punish small stores and restaurants, especially in areas far from the Toronto region that do not have high infection rates.

Canadian Federation of Independent Business head Dan Kelly called the grants a “drop in the ocean of despair” for entrepreneurs, especially given that big-box stores can be open if they sell groceries. “You’re still going to be able to buy a book in Costco, but you’re prohibited by law from buying one at an independent bookstore,” he said in an interview.

With reports from Josh O’Kane and Oliver Moore in Toronto and Marieke Walsh in Ottawa

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