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Alex Shin works out at Hone Fitness in Toronto on July 31, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The Ontario government kept a promise to help businesses this week when it unveiled the criteria behind a new colour-coded system for imposing or lifting restrictions used to control the spread of COVID-19.

Sadly, the plan is a demonstration of how politics can get in the way of sound public-health decisions. Some of the criteria seem to be out of whack with reality.

Ontario’s new rainbow of emergency levels – rising in severity from green to yellow, to orange and red, and finally to grey for complete lockdown – appears to be more about justifying the reopening of businesses than reducing the spread of COVID-19. And that’s the wrong approach.

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Figuring out how to reopen the maximum number of businesses, safely, is the right goal. But until there’s a vaccine, the way to get there is to develop new and better ways of controlling the spread of the virus – such as through more and faster testing, better contact tracing, help for congregant-setting businesses to ensure they follow physical-distancing measures – so that reopening doesn’t deliver a spike in infections.

It’s easy to appreciate the pressure the Ford government is under from restaurants, bars, movie theatres and gyms to allow to them to reopen in well-populated urban areas.

But in crafting its new classification system, the government of Doug Ford has chosen to give businesses a worryingly broad latitude under which they can remain open.

Take Toronto, one of the province’s hot spots. Restaurants and bars there are currently closed to indoor service. Movie theatres, casinos, fitness centres and many similar venues are shuttered.

The Ford government imposed the restrictions on Oct. 9 – after a week of pleading from Toronto’s top doctor – because of an alarming spike in COVID-19 numbers in Toronto, as well as in Peel and Ottawa.

Case counts have not abated since; in fact, they were slightly higher this week in all three regions. But as of Saturday, Toronto, Ottawa and three other regions will move into the new orange-coloured “Restrict” classification. (Toronto has asked for a one-week delay, to Nov. 14.)

Restaurants and bars will be allowed up to 50 customers indoors. So will gyms and fitness centres. Movie theatres can reopen with 50 customers, as can bingo halls and casinos.

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There will be strict mask rules. Customers – including those entering a shopping mall – will have to be screened by filling out a questionnaire. Last call will come at 9 p.m.

But once reopened, the new guidelines appear to say that a rollback won’t happen, barring what could only be called a COVID-19 catastrophe.

Toronto, for instance, will only be moved back into the red-coloured “Control” classification – in which indoor dining is once again banned, and gyms and theatres are closed – if it hits about 3,000 new cases a week. The city is currently seeing about 2,250 cases a week.

Toronto would also have to hit a test-positivity rate of 10 per cent, meaning one in 10 tests returns a positive result. Ontario’s current positivity rate is around 4 per cent, and it has never been higher than 8 per cent.

Many epidemiologists are alarmed, and they should be.

Ideally, we’d like all businesses to be able to reopen, without restrictions. But instead of simply pushing Ontario and other governments to stop imposing costly losses on restaurants, gyms and movie theatres, we should be asking what they are doing to drive infection numbers down and keep them down – so that those businesses can safely resume.

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Instead of asking how much government will spend to bail out shuttered businesses, we should be putting the emphasis on what governments are doing to suppress the pandemic by means other than lockdowns, so the minimum number of businesses need a bailout.

It’s notable that Ontario’s budget, released on Thursday, contained lots of new spending, tax breaks and hydro subsidies, all of it ostensibly to cope with the pandemic’s economic fallout. But there wasn’t much talk of a grand strategy aimed at limiting the spread of the virus itself.

Canada over all has done a relatively good job of managing this crisis. There have been mistakes – a lack of testing and tracing chief among them – but our country is currently in better shape than Europe or the United States.

Ontario had better be sure that its new criteria for reopening the most risky businesses is not a recipe for undermining its own progress.

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