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Ontario Premier Doug Ford prepares to speak at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2021 to announce a state of emergency and stay at home order for the province of Ontario.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Give Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government credit. After many months of failing to provide clear instruction about its often-confusing pandemic rules, this week it delivered a simple message: This is a state of emergency. Stay home. Don’t go out.

It’s what the Premier and his ministers said on Tuesday, hammered away at on Wednesday and reiterated on Thursday, with an emergency alert text to millions of mobile phones. Stay home and don’t go out because, said the government, it’s now the law. And don’t go out because that’s how COVID-19 is spread.

The wake-up call was needed. The alarm bells were called for. But it bears asking whether the government’s message, and its policy, are not slightly off target.

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You don’t catch COVID-19 solely by leaving home, which is why the government’s stay-at-home order includes a long list of valid reasons for not staying home: going to work; going to school; going to child care; going shopping; getting married; going to a funeral; buying a car; buying or selling a property; buying booze or pot; buying groceries; going to the bank; shooting a movie or TV show; picking up takeout; exercising; walking the dog; travelling to a second home; and going to the airport.

The list of exceptions to the stay-at-home order verges on the infinite, and in any case the government says police will not be randomly stopping cars and asking people why they are out. That is a good thing, because what causes the spread of COVID-19 is not people stepping out of their front door. Not exactly.

The problem is not that people are going out. Most of the going out, whether to the grocery store or for a walk, is low risk or can be made so. The problem is that some people who are going out are also going in – to places where they can catch or spread the virus, namely workplaces or the homes of friends.

The Ontario government’s rule is: Don’t go out – except for one of the umpteen good reasons for going out.

A better and clearer rule would be: Don’t go in – to any home other than your own. Do not have people over. Do not have close contact with anyone other than the people you live with.

Widespread failure to follow that rule, and the Ford government’s failure to be clear that it is a rule, is a big part of the reason for the province’s post-Christmas surge in infections.

The other place people shouldn’t be going in to? Work.

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Ontario’s emergency order says that anyone who doesn’t have to be physically present at a workplace must stay home. That’s an excellent idea, because most offices are the definition of a congregate setting. All else equal, spending eight hours a day in one is much higher risk than spending 10 minutes walking through a supermarket while masked.

Unfortunately, it is being left up to businesses to decide whether and where this new rule applies to them, which means that it’s not a rule at all. But if this is really a state of emergency – and it is – then almost anyone whose job does not involve working with their hands should be working from home, for at least the next four weeks. The Ford government needs to move beyond vague suggestions and direct employers to make it happen.

But some jobs require a physical presence: grocery stores and pharmacies, food-processing plants and the massive warehousing and logistics operations that are the analogue world behind online shopping. Workers here can’t stay home; in fact, it’s because they’re going to work that everyone else doesn’t have to.

And since these workers must go to work, the government must take steps to lower their workplace risks. That means inspections to help companies improve distancing, free protective gear, heavy testing in the most at-risk workplaces so cases can be quickly found and prompt financial support so infected employees will be willing to quarantine for two weeks.

So do go out – for food, to get exercise, to walk the dog. And no, you can’t get COVID-19 driving in your car.

But don’t go in – to anyone else’s home, or your workplace.

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And if you’re someone whose work must be done in person, the government has to help you by going back to the drawing board, and ensuring that working isn’t a danger to you or to the rest of us – or to Ontario’s goal of averting a public-health catastrophe.

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