For weeks, the war against the novel coronavirus has focused on tabulating infections and deaths, shuttering businesses, closing schools and staying home to break the chain of transmission.
Now, something more optimistic is poking its head above the ground, like a spring flower: The first plans for lifting restrictions and putting the country on the long path back to normality.
Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, where the pandemic has been less severe, led the way last week with announcements about reopening parks, beaches and golf clubs, restarting medical services that had been put on hold and slowly raising the limit on the size of gatherings.
But Quebec and Ontario, the hardest hit provinces, are also now daring to contemplate, and even schedule, the easing of restrictions.
The first phase of the COVID-19 war is ending, and the next is beginning. But Canadians should be wary of getting their hopes up too high and too soon. To borrow from a famous Second World War song, we will not be home-free by Christmas. The process of lifting the states of emergency that have put careers and businesses on ice will be fraught, owing to the risk of a second wave of infections.
Each province will have its own timetable and priorities. The battle comes down to finding the delicate balance between lifting restrictions and continuing to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Quebec, where half the confirmed cases in Canada have been recorded, and more than half of the deaths (1,599 out of 2,707 as of Monday), is choosing to allow 450,000 people to return to work.
The province will reopen manufacturing, construction and some retail operations over three weeks starting May 4. There will be limits on how many people can be in a store or on the floor of a factory, but the hope is that construction will be going full tilt by May 11, and that manufacturing will be back to full capacity by May 24.
Quebec is also reopening elementary schools and day cares outside of the Montreal area on May 11, and a week later in Montreal, where the vast majority of the province’s cases and deaths have occurred. Attendance will be voluntary. High schools, colleges and universities won’t have in-person classes until August at the earliest.
Ontario, on the other hand, has opted to hold off a while longer, and to gather more intelligence on the coronavirus, before easing any restrictions. Ontario is home to a third of the country’s confirmed cases, and a third of its deaths.
Premier Doug Ford said Monday that his government has “a road map, not a calendar." The province will need to see a two- to four-week daily decrease in the number of new COVID-19 cases before it will start down the road of lifting restrictions.
Ontario also wants to be sure hospitals and public-health officials are equipped to handle a second wave, should one occur. That means having enough personal protection gear on hand, more testing capacity and the ability to track down everyone who has been in contact with a person who tests positive for the coronavirus within 24 hours.
Only under those conditions will the Ford government start to lift restrictions, and then in a staggered fashion that starts slowly and builds. The reason for caution is to avoid a surge of new cases that could send the province back to square one.
The different approaches in the two provinces that, as of Monday, accounted for 82 per cent of the confirmed cases in Canada and 92 per cent of the deaths, demonstrate the complications and nuances of lifting restrictions and gradually reanimating the economy.
Quebec’s approach is more aggressive, and hence carries slightly higher risks that a flattening infection curve may be given the opportunity to bend back up. Ontario’s approach is more cautious, but puts off the start of the economic spring for a few weeks.
Regardless of the timetable chosen, there is one inescapable fact that the provinces and Ottawa acknowledged in a statement released Tuesday: Until there is a vaccine, the reopening of the Canadian economy depends on building the capacity for testing large numbers of people, tracking everyone they have come into contact with and isolating both groups. More on that in tomorrow’s editorial.
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