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Ontarians, it’s up to you.

Premier Doug Ford did not say those words on Tuesday, as he declared a state of emergency. But tallying up his government’s actions and non-actions in the latest pandemic plan, it might as well have been his message. Infections are rising, hospitals are filling up, the lines in the epidemiological models are all moving sharply in the wrong direction – and in response, the government is changing remarkably little about rules brought in last month.

Instead, stemming the spread is being left largely in the hands of the province’s nearly 15 million residents. They have been given what is being presented as a stay-at-home order, but which is really more of a please-stay-at-home-if-and-when-you-can request.

In declaring a state of emergency, Mr. Ford was using the megaphone of state to get people’s attention. He is trying to wake people up to the gravity of the situation. That’s a very good idea, though the country’s largest province is about to discover if it’s enough.

The government’s message is thankfully now clearer than it’s ever been – stay home and don’t see other people. But the message, rather than new rules in pursuit of it, is what the government is counting on to plank the virus.

And so, as the vaccination curve races the infection curve, buying time for the former to outpace the latter mostly comes down to people keeping their distance, for a few more months.

Here’s some perennial news about COVID-19. One: Reducing close interactions with people not in your household is the best way to prevent its spread; if we could put every Canadian inside a bubble, the number of infections would be zero. Two: Canada now has cases of the so-called U.K. variant, which is more easily spread, making it all the more important to limit contacts outside your home. And three: Canadians are still socializing, a lot. Or at least they were over Christmas.

Amidst all the shocking graphs in Ontario’s latest modelling data, showing infections, hospitalizations and burials poised to exceed the first wave, the most disconcerting piece of information came from some basic polling data. Fully half of Ontarians confessed to recently having guests over to their home. Given a natural human reluctance to not admit to things you aren’t supposed to be doing, the true numbers are likely higher.

Ontario’s stay-at-home order will have some impact, including through its attempt to get everyone who can work from home to do so. It’s clear that a high percentage of people who can stay away from the office are already doing so; any further boost in those numbers will help.

The province is also stepping up inspections and enforcement at essential workplaces, where distancing isn’t always possible, where rapid testing to find and isolate cases is paramount, and where making it easy – and not financially punishing – for sick workers to stay home is vital. All of this has been on the menu since the start of the pandemic, but the testing, the isolation centres and the financial supports for isolating workers have never been rolled out with the needed urgency. It’s all still a work in progress.

So is the “iron ring” Ontario was supposed to have built around long-term care facilities. The promised wall has been more of a Maginot Line. Forty per cent of homes have second-wave outbreaks, and the death toll, at more than 1,100 and climbing fast, is on track to exceed that of the first wave.

And given accelerating case numbers among young people, schools in five regions will remain closed until mid-February. There were also hints that schools reopening elsewhere may be delayed as well.

Since Dec. 26, Ontario is at least no longer in a situation in which shopping centres are closed in some regions while still open in many others. There is no longer the enticement – which mobility data show tens of thousands of people were enticed by – to travel to crowded malls somewhere down the highway.

But beyond those fixes, the last of which was made two weeks ago, what the Ford government did on Tuesday, and what it didn’t do, leaves much of the fight in the hands of Ontarians.

So it’s up to us all to choose wisely. Because if January is a rerun of December, when people bent the rules – just a little bit, just this once – to have dinner with family and friends, the province is headed for a tragedy in February.

Ontario is issuing an order requiring residents to stay at home starting Thursday, except for essential activities such as accessing health care or shopping for groceries, and further delaying in-person classes for students in some hot spots.

The Canadian Press

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