Ontario is scheduled to announce new measures on Tuesday to try to stop the rampant spread of COVID-19. How effective the measures will be remains to be seen but, given the Ford government’s track record, there is reason to worry they won’t hit the mark.
The government has repeatedly been slow-moving since the pandemic first hit last year, often waiting a week or more before acting in response to clear evidence. It has also sent confusing messages: At Thanksgiving, people were advised to limit gatherings to households, but indoor dining in restaurants was still permitted.
The worst example of this day-late, dollar-short approach came during the Christmas holidays.
Cases were rising in December, and modelling released on Dec. 19 made it clear the numbers were on the verge of exploding. And so on Dec. 21, the government announced it would act – but not until the busiest and most social holiday on the calendar was over.
It urged people to stay home, and not to visit family and friends. But it didn’t impose a provincewide lockdown of non-essential businesses until Dec. 26.
It’s no shock that slow action plus mixed messaging failed to do the trick.
Toronto and Peel Region, where new cases were already spiking, were locked down at the time of the announcement. But that just meant people who wanted to buy gifts in stores could do so in neighbouring regions. The government essentially encouraged people from places with high infection rates to travel to crowded malls in less-infected areas.
And the knowledge that the lockdown wasn’t coming until Dec. 26 left many people with the impression the situation couldn’t be all that dire, and that a big family dinner wouldn’t pose much of a risk.
Wrong. Cellphone location data show that the holidays were a period of widespread travel within the province. And regions that had relatively few COVID-19 cases have since seen big surges.
The government’s wishy-washy holiday measures have now come home to roost, and right on schedule.
Two weeks after the holidays, with infections acquired at Christmas making themselves known, Ontario is seeing nearly 4,000 new cases a day – double the rate in mid-December. And the peak is not yet in sight. Last Friday, Premier Doug Ford teased the latest provincial forecasts, to be released on Tuesday. “When you see the modelling,” he said, “you’ll fall off your chair.”
It’s hard to understand why the Premier would tell Ontarians that the house was ablaze but wait 96 hours to reveal his fire-suppression plan. In any event, things are once again grim, and the public once again awaits word of new restrictions to replace old restrictions that didn’t work.
So what will the government announce on Tuesday? It has apparently ruled out following Quebec’s lead and implementing a nighttime curfew, but there is room for it to get tougher. Its current lockdown is not as tight as the one that flattened the curve in the first wave of the virus last spring.
Unlike during that first lockdown, non-essential businesses and libraries are still open for curbside pickup, and daycares are in operation. Outdoor facilities such as parks, playgrounds, skating rinks and basketball courts are open. Film and TV production are allowed, under strict conditions.
Ontario has options. What the province needs to do on Tuesday is explain the extent to which potentially targeted things such as non-essential businesses or physically distanced outdoor activities are – or are not – the cause of infections. Have evidence; don’t randomly ban things. New restrictions, if they are coming, should be accompanied by testing and tracing in hot spots, a credible vaccination plan and, above all, a lack of tardy, short-lived half-measures designed to not interfere with weary voters’ holiday plans.
The latter is a real issue. Valentine’s Day and Ontario’s Family Day holiday land in just four weeks. If the Ford government again sends mixed messages about gatherings, or waits until the last minute to send the message, whatever gains are achieved between now and mid-February risk being lost. And then, in early March, Mr. Ford will be previewing yet more modelling to knock you off your seat.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it best: “The virus punishes half-heartedness.”
In Ontario, that’s an understatement.
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