Ontario is imposing sweeping new restrictions in the COVID-19 hot spots of Toronto and Peel Region, including shuttering in-person retail shopping but allowing grocers, pharmacies, hardware stores and liquor outlets to operate at 50-per-cent capacity.
Premier Doug Ford announced on Friday that Toronto and neighbouring Peel, which includes Mississauga and Brampton, would be entering the “lockdown” stage, the strictest level in the province’s restrictions, for at least 28 days as of Monday. Although schools and daycares will remain open, postsecondary institutions will now go primarily to virtual instruction. Gyms and personal-care services such as hair salons will also have to shutter and restaurants will only be allowed to offer takeout.
Mr. Ford said the measures were difficult but necessary as COVID-19 cases in some parts of the province are spreading at “an alarming rate.”
“We cannot put in-class learning at risk, we can’t risk widespread outbreaks in our long-term care homes, we cannot risk overwhelming our hospitals,” Mr. Ford said.
The Ontario government’s announcement came on the same day that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged people to stay home and reduce their contacts to protect the “future of our country.” But, he said, Ottawa would not be imposing any national restrictions.
In Ontario, the changes mean that retail stores, including those in malls, will go to delivery and curbside pickup only, while Mr. Ford warned Friday against “panic buying.” Big-box stores such as Walmart and Costco that sell groceries will, however, remain open – which the small-business community called “devastating news.”
“That large department stores can be open while small retailers are forced to close during the busiest season of the year is a direct punch to the gut of independent businesses,” said a statement from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
In Toronto and Peel, the province is now outlawing indoor gatherings outside of one’s household, while outdoor events are limited to 10 people. Weddings and funerals, along with religious services, are now limited to 10 people both inside and outside.
The province also announced that the regions of Durham and Waterloo will join Halton and York regions and Hamilton in the “red zone,” with the highest restrictions short of a lockdown under the government’s colour-coded COVID-19 framework. In those regions, indoor dining, gyms and fitness classes are allowed with only 10 people.
For regions in the red zone, social gatherings are now limited to five people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
The Monday lockdown coincides with additional support from the provincial and federal governments for businesses affected by the changes. On Monday, applications will open for the delayed federal rent support program for entrepreneurs. Ontario also said a previously announced $300-million fund to help offset property taxes and hydro bills will be doubled to $600-million, with applications to open Monday as well. However, the CFIB called current provincial supports “a drop in the bucket.”
COVID-19 infections have been surging in the Greater Toronto Area since the summer.
Ontario on Friday reported 1,418 new cases, including 400 in Peel, 393 in Toronto and 168 in York Region. There were eight deaths.
There were also 142 COVID-19 patients in the province’s intensive-care units, down slightly from 150 on Thursday, a level at which health officials have warned could mean some surgeries would have to be cancelled at some hospitals.
Toronto Mayor John Tory praised the province’s move to tighten restrictions, raising the spectre of a worsening virus fallout and, eventually, a harsher clampdown and greater economic impact had Queen’s Park delayed.
“The case for action to stop the spread of COVID-19 now, before it gets even worse, is clear,” he told a late-afternoon briefing. In Peel Region, Medical Officer of Health Lawrence Loh welcomed the measures and called them “the start of our attempts to turn back the tide” of COVID-19 transmission.
Mr. Ford had been hinting all week that Toronto and the neighbouring regions of Peel and York could be headed for a lockdown. But his government did not take the step in York Region, whose officials had pleaded with the Premier in a letter sent Thursday to leave them out of a lockdown because they said current public-health measures were working and businesses are following the rules.
York – which includes the municipalities of Markham, Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Newmarket – will remain in the “red zone,” meaning malls and stores stay open, although the province has instituted a new rule that requires two metres of distance while waiting in lines. Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti on Friday urged those in Toronto and Peel not to travel there, and called on the province to enact stricter measures for malls and big-box stores in red zones.
Dire projections released Friday show that Canada is currently on track to see 20,000 new cases a day by the end of December if people continue the same level of socializing. If individuals see even more people over the holiday season, then projections show that number could climb to 60,000 daily new cases by the end of the year. In the past week, Canada has averaged 4,776 daily new COVID-19 cases.
Mr. Trudeau said on Friday that the pandemic wave is “spiking massively” across the country, but that Ottawa will continue to leave the decisions on lockdowns and other restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 to premiers and mayors.
Mr. Trudeau was asked to weigh in on the Quebec government’s plan to loosen gathering restrictions for four days over Christmas. The Prime Minister said it’s still too soon to determine what will be safe to do during that period because it depends on the case counts over the next few weeks. However, no matter what, a normal Christmas is “out of the question,” he said.
Mr. Ford said the provincial cabinet and health officials were still deciding what advice they would give families in Ontario as they plan their holidays.
With a report from Oliver Moore in Toronto
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