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In response to devastating projections that Ontario’s health care system is on the brink of collapse, Premier Doug Ford announced that his government will be doing … practically nothing.

The incomprehensible new directives include a stay-at-home-order that prohibits outings except for “essential purposes” such as grocery shopping and exercise, but still allows “non-essential retail stores” to remain open, albeit with restricted hours. Ontarians are not supposed to leave their homes except for necessary trips, but the province also announced that organized outdoor public gatherings will now be capped at a maximum of five. Indoor weddings are still permitted for up to 10 people, even though Ontario is now in a state of emergency.

When asked why he chose not to implement a curfew such as the one recently enacted in Quebec, Mr. Ford said he didn’t support the idea of “the police chasing you down the street” when you pull out of your driveway at 8 p.m. But the new stay-at-home order means that police could theoretically chase you down the street now at 2 p.m., or 7 a.m., or anytime you pull out of your driveway and they suspect you are leaving home for an unsanctioned reason.

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The Premier teased this past week that updated modelling numbers would make “you fall off your chair” – as if he was a morbid game show host, teasing the next segment after the commercial break – and warned that new, stricter lockdown measures were coming to deal with Ontario’s record growth in COVID-19 cases. But the only major change announced Tuesday was that children in the hardest hit regions will be out of school for about an extra two weeks. The list of essential workplaces remained the same (with the exception of some construction jobs), there were no new measures to control the spread of the virus in care homes, nothing on rapid testing in factories or distribution centres, no news on provincial paid sick leave and the exact text of the stay-at-home-order still hadn’t been made available as of the next morning.

It was a clownish level of incompetence for a government that is now facing the prospect of 100 COVID-19 deaths a day by the end of February (double the current rate) and a growing wave of seriously ill patients that our already overburdened system simply cannot handle. Mobility data revealed during Ontario’s modelling update showed that people weren’t listening to instructions to stay home before. And now all they have are a collection of confusing, relatively mild and inherently contradictory directives. Somehow, the province hopes these rules will prevent its health care system from barrelling into catastrophe.

Like Mr. Ford, Quebec Premier François Legault has struggled to control the spread of COVID-19 in his province. But Mr. Legault’s expectations of residents have, at least, been laid out plainly, with a clear prohibition on non-essential trips outside the home after 8 p.m. Ontario’s mishmash of instructions, in contrast, appear to have been conceived mostly out of a desire to avoid use of the word “curfew,” though it amounts to something of an all-the-time prohibition on leaving the home.

And yet, if Ontario’s bumbling record of about-faces and belated policy enactments are any indication, a curfew will come eventually, but only after the Premier has thoroughly repudiated the policy, and after the province wastes weeks trying out a more generalized stay-at-home order. On Jan. 3, Ontario’s Education Minister was unequivocal that in-person learning would resume as scheduled, but by Jan. 7 it was delayed for some regions. The same thing could very well happen with a curfew.

Those interim weeks before a curfew comes, according to modelling, may be the roughest the province has seen so far in this pandemic. It will be a juncture that will require clear leadership and strict instructions, not the same sort of contradictory messaging that, for example, gave Ontarians implicit permission to gather for Christmas when Mr. Ford delayed a provincial lockdown until Boxing Day. It should see the province work hastily to address vulnerabilities in environments most prone to contagion by closing the loophole, for example, that allows personal support workers hired through staffing agencies to work in multiple long-term care homes, even though the practice was banned in the first wave. And it should finally mean provincial paid sick leave, with the acknowledgement that the federal sick leave benefit program has been unpersuasive in persuading some workers to forgo their regular income.

But this government’s laggard performance throughout this pandemic – from being caught flat-footed on testing early in the second wave, to leaving vaccines in freezers during the Christmas holidays, to the abject failure to protect long-term care – has proven it to be incapable of acting proactively, decisively, or with any semblance of innovation. Despite experiencing the perils of acting too late, it still tiptoes along the path to disaster, pausing to tie its shoes only after tripping over its laces.

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