Doug Ford announces plan for Stage 1 of easing COVID-19 restrictions

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on May 14 how the province will start to reopen its economy and phase out some emergency restrictions that were imposed to combat COVID-19.  The announcement laid out a plan to lift restrictions on construction and to allow the reopening of retail stores that are not in malls, as well as seasonal businesses, and pet services. The first stage also involves the “gradually restarting” scheduled surgeries, along with allowing libraries to open for pickup, and allowing property management services, such as cleaning, painting and pool maintenance, to resume.  Ford said Ontario will begin to phase out its semi-lockdown starting on May 19 — but a key question looming over the announcement is whether Ontario’s public health system has enough of a handle on the pandemic that Stage 1 of the reopening plan can be launched safely.   

The Ford government’s framework for the reopening, unveiled in late April, set out clear public health criteria for beginning to phase out restrictions on businesses and gatherings. They included:   

  • A consistent two–to-four week decrease in the number of new daily COVID‑19 cases.
  • Sufficient acute and critical care hospital capacity to respond to potential surges.
  • Approximately 90 per cent of new COVID‑19 case contacts being reached by local public health officials within one day.
  • Ongoing testing of suspected cases to detect new outbreaks quickly.

While the publicly available data seems to suggest Ontario has seen a steady decrease in the daily number of new cases and has sufficient hospital capacity, it’s not so clear whether testing and contact tracing are adequate.   “If we’re not testing widely enough, if we’re only catching 5% of actual cases in the population, that’s going to be a problem, and that’s not going to be sufficient to keep cases down once we start lifting the physical distancing measures,” said epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

“We don’t really know at this point the number of people who are mildly symptomatic who are being turned away [from testing].”  Tuite said in an interview that she’s worried about the possibility that Ontario is seeing lower numbers of confirmed cases in part because testing is being restricted.   

Health Minister Christine Elliott promised to roll out a plan for wider testing of the general public “very soon.” It’s going to be really important as we open up parts of our economy that we do … that surveillance testing in the community,” Elliott said during the premier’s daily news conference.  On May 14, she announced an expansion of the province’s testing guidelines so that “anyone with symptoms” will be able to get a test.

“This next phase of our testing strategy will help ensure we identify and contain new cases and allow us to closely monitor any shifts in community spread,” said Elliott’s spokesperson Hayley Chazan in an email to reporters.   The province’s framework says Stage 1 would involve:   

  • Opening select workplaces that can meet current public health guidelines.
  • Allowing essential gatherings of a limited number of people.
  • Opening some outdoor spaces.  

The framework describes the workplaces that would qualify as those “workplaces that can immediately meet or modify operations to meet public health guidance and occupational health and safety requirements (e.g., curbside pickup or delivery).”  Curbside pickup — for businesses that had been closed as non-essential — has been allowed since Monday. Also on Monday, Ontario reopened access to provincial parks, but campsites and facilities at all parks remain closed. 

Stage one of the province’s reopening plan will see workplaces gradually begin to reopen “but working from home should continue as much as possible,” the plan states.  As for when the next stage of the recovery plan might begin, “there is no timeframe” on that, the premier said.

Source: CBC
Source: CBC

Ontario Officially Extends All Emergency Orders Until May 29

The Ontario government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, has extended all emergency orders currently in force until May 29, 2020. That includes the closure of bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery only, restrictions on social gatherings of more than five people, and staff redeployment rules for long-term care homes and congregate settings like retirement homes and women’s shelters. The government is also allowing drive-in religious gatherings.

On May 19, the province officially entered the first stage of its Framework for Reopening the Province. As part of this initial stage, the government is permitting the reopening of some outdoor recreational amenities, including outdoor sports facilities and multi-use fields, off-leash dog areas, and outdoor picnic sites, benches and shelters in parks and recreational areas. Outdoor playgrounds, play structures and equipment, fitness equipment, public swimming pools, splash pads and similar outdoor water facilities will remain closed until later stages of the province’s reopening plan.

“Although we are entering the first stage of our framework to reopen the economy, it’s critical that we continue to do so in a safe and responsible manner,” said Premier Ford. “The people of Ontario have been doing a fantastic job to help flatten the curve and stop the spread of this terrible virus. With warmer weather beginning, individuals and families will now be able to enjoy many outdoor amenities, but everyone must continue to maintain physical distancing from those outside of their household.”

To ensure that individuals and families have safe access to outdoor spaces, it is critical they take everyday steps to reduce exposure to the virus, such as maintaining physical distancing by staying two metres apart from anyone outside of their household, washing hands regularly, and staying home if feeling unwell. “It’s never been more important for people to continue following the public health measures and advice we’ve laid out, so we don’t undo the tremendous progress we’ve made to contain COVID-19,” said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. 

In addition, the government has approved an exemption to the emergency order related to gatherings to allow Ontarians to attend drive-in religious gatherings, under certain conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The conditions include keeping vehicles two metres or more apart, only members of the same household can be in one vehicle, people will not be able to leave their vehicles, and no more than five people can conduct the service at one time from outside a motor vehicle and they must stay at least two metres apart.

Source: Ontario Government