Ontario has become a pandemic success story. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are low and falling. Schools reopened, and a spike in infections did not happen. Restaurants, bars and gyms welcomed patrons indoors, but the virus did not surge. Thanksgiving family gatherings came and went; still no spike.
What Ontario has been doing is fairly simple. After spending the first year of the pandemic alternating between lifting public health measures too early and imposing them too late, the Doug Ford government finally got smart.
And so, while the vaccination campaign rolled ahead, it put in place some of North America’s toughest public health measures. It eased them cautiously, with each step of reopening only happening once cases and hospitalizations were low enough to provide confidence that a surge would not be triggered.
On Friday, Premier Ford laid out a roadmap to end all remaining public health restrictions. On Monday, capacity limits will be lifted in places such as restaurants and bars. The vaccine passport requirement for entry to those places could be gone by Jan. 17. All remaining restrictions, including masking in indoor public spaces, are scheduled to be removed by March 28.
Is the Ford government being overly optimistic in expecting the post-COVID era to start in just five months? Is it tying its pandemic response to the political calendar, centred on next spring’s election? There are echoes of the mistakes made by Jason Kenney and Scott Moe.
The pandemic has never been milder in Ontario but, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, things have never been worse. Their disastrous fall is the direct result of the pride of just a few months earlier, when the two premiers insisted that COVID-19 could bend to the needs of their timetables.
A pair of provincial governments scheduled the end of the pandemic, and the end of public health measures, for last summer. The pandemic had other ideas, as everyone save the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan knew it would.
Ontario’s Premier Ford insists he is not making the same mistake. On Friday, he said his timetable for lifting the remaining public health measures “isn’t a one-way street; it’s a two-way street.” He’s saying the calendar items are written in pencil, not ink, and are dependent on the path of infections and hospitalizations. He’s saying that, no matter what’s in his calendar, rules and restrictions won’t be eased unless things are moving in the right direction, and will even be re-introduced if things start going in the wrong direction.
But timetables create expectations and demands. Everyone knows that. It would have been far better – for the province and the Ford government’s political prospects – if Ontario had simply said it would scale back public health measures at the pace of the pandemic. No specific steps, no promised dates.
Also a mistake: Announcing that, in less than three months, vaccine passports will be gone. They were just introduced! In a province with one of Canada’s lowest vaccination rates – at 88 per cent of those aged 12 and over, Ontario’s first-shot rate is barely higher than Alberta’s – the government is effectively telling the vaccine hesitant to stay unvaccinated, and wait it out.
It would be far better for Ontario to set a series of infection, hospitalization and vaccination targets that must be hit before removing each of the remaining public health measures. That would give a needed boost to the immunization campaign, including the coming one for children aged five to 11, and a future booster campaign that will be needed for everyone else.
And we have to question the decision to promise Ontarians that masks will be gone by March. Why make such a promise? Mandatory masking in indoor public places has proved an effective and minimally intrusive way of limiting infections, while allowing businesses to reopen. The rules are almost universally followed, and that’s likely been a major contributor to Ontario’s low case counts.
Scaling back mask use may one day make sense. But throwing them away entirely is unlikely to be wise at any point in the foreseeable future. As such, telling people that in just a few months we can ditch our masks risks undermining their use today. It strongly suggests that the war is over, or close enough. It says that now is the time to let down our guard. That’s the wrong signal.
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