Why eastern Ontario could reopen before other regions

Some services and activities in eastern Ontario may be able to reopen sooner than the rest of the province if the government takes a regional approach to lifting COVID-19 restrictions.

3 local health units have fewer than 10 cases, according to Public Health Ontario

Downtown Renfrew, Ont., has begun to reopen, with physical distancing measures and curbside pickup in place. As of 11 a.m. on May 29, 2020, the local health unit had only seven active confirmed cases of COVID-19. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Some services and activities in eastern Ontario may be able to reopen sooner than the rest of the province if the government takes a regional approach to lifting COVID-19 restrictions.

Premier Doug Ford announced Friday that based on the latest testing, the province will be looking at that option.

"I am now comfortable with asking our officials to look at a regional approach for a staged reopening. This will be one option we consider as we move into Stage 2," Ford said.

"We're only able to do this now because we're getting our testing to where we need."

Several health units in eastern Ontario are reporting a lower number of active cases in recent days, and far fewer cases per capita than the Greater Toronto Area.

I would concentrate on more seasonal and outdoor activities, opening up some of the pools and some of the beaches, allowing for more people to congregate.- Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, Eastern Ontario Health Unit


According to Public Health Ontario, the Kingston, Ont., area had no active or unresolved cases as of 11 a.m. Friday.

The regions covered by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) and Renfrew District Health Unit have fewer than 10 active cases.

Even Ottawa, a city of one million, has just 141 active cases.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the EOHU, has been calling for a regional reopening strategy within the provincial framework. 

"We may be ready for Stage 2 where a neighbouring health unit may not be or Toronto may not be," Roumeliotis said in an interview with CBC before the premier's announcement.

He said the decision should be left to local health units based on criteria such as active and new cases as well as contact tracing and surveillance capacity. 

Pools, beaches, markets, day camps

Activities such as pools, beaches, farmers markets, berry-picking farms and day camps may benefit from this next step of reopening, Roumeliotis said.

"I would concentrate on more seasonal and outdoor activities, opening up some of the pools and some of the beaches, allowing for more people to congregate."

Roumeliotis warned some communities in his region that are close to Ottawa, such as Rockland, Ont., are still experiencing a relatively high number of cases, a phenomenon he links to movement between regions.

"Let's say we open up certain businesses or other businesses in our area before our neighbour, be it Quebec on the other side side or Ottawa toward the west: the risk is they will come to our area and perhaps infect people," Roumelioitis said.

He said he doesn't support police checkpoints, which were part of Quebec's lockdown strategy, but added any reopening plan would need to take into account those kinds of "unwanted implications."

Different precautions for different regions

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said she is waiting for more details about how the province will pursue a regional approach. 

"The east is a huge geographic area, and it's quite likely that people will need to take different precautions across different parts of the east," she said.

Etches said no one measure will reassure or concern her, but local health agencies need to have the capacity to deal with issues like contact tracing, testing and hospital capacity.

"I do want to see what the impact is of what we're doing right now. Going back to work, opening up stores — I need to know two or three weeks out what are the figures, based on more interactions now," she said, referring to recent reopening measures.

Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson was an early advocate for the regional approach to reopening, which was initially rejected by the province.

"We saw a regional approach being launched in other provinces and other surrounding jurisdictions," he said in an interview with CBC Ottawa's All In A Day.

Paterson said he's grateful the idea got traction, but acknowledged there are more details to come, and the date of any potential reopening is in the hands of health officials.

Mel Blimkie, treasurer of the Downtown Renfrew BIA, said local businesses have prepared physical distancing measures that should work if reopening moves to the next stage. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Renfrew getting ready

In downtown Renfrew, Ont., shop owners have set out hand sanitizer and put up tape markings to direct their customers and make physical distancing easier.

Mel Blimkie at A Sense of Country said a regional reopening could make sense, given how well the community has managed to keep number of cases down.

"You just can't paint with the same brush the whole province," said Blimkie, who's also the treasurer for the Downtown Renfrew BIA. "I think that there are areas that certainly have taken the proper steps ... to ensure they can safely reopen."

Blimkie said appropriate distancing precautions would help people feel more comfortable about visitors from a larger centre, like Ottawa.

Meanwhile, 12-year-old Ediegh Lambert said she's most eager for the socially-isolating parts of the lockdown to be lifted.

"I'm an only child, so I don't really have anyone to hang out with or anything. So I think it would be nice to go back to school and see my friends again," Lambert said.

The Ontario government hasn't changed its plan to reopen schools in September.

Edeigh (left) and Andrea Lambert (right) said that being able to gather with other people is what they'd most look forward to in the next stage of reopening. However, they want health officials to proceed cautiously since Renfrew has had a small number of cases. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Her mother, Andrea, said she'd also like to expand her social circle again, but she has some reservations about Renfrew opening ahead of other areas with more cases.

"I think that locally, it would be beneficial to all the businesses to be able to start opening the doors and get the customers to start coming back in again," she said.

"There's no borders around Renfrew County, so people can come in — and it brings the risk of having more exposure to the virus."

with files from Mike Crawley and CBC's All in a Day

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