GO Transit reduces services, universities close: What you need to know about COVID-19 in Ontario 

Residents across the GTA are being met with chaotic scenes at grocery stores in the region as more and more people look to stockpile supplies amid fears that coronavirus will continue its spread in Ontario.

Friday saw 19 new cases of the virus confirmed across Ontario, bringing the provincial total to 79

Customers struggled to find cleaning supplies at a downtown Toronto Metro store on Friday. Many have been stocking up on supplies as concerns around the spread of COVID-19 grow. (Submitted by Doug Earl)

As Ontario contends with its single-biggest increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, new measures are underway to limit the spread of the virus — affecting universities, childcare facilities, provincial transit, tourist attractions and other services.

The provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, has announced a selective reduction in GO train and bus, as well as Union-Pearson Express services, effective Wednesday, March 18. Revised schedules are being finalized and will be available Sunday at noon. 

Effective 12:01 a.m. March 14, the following services will also be closed or cancelled in Toronto: all licensed childcare centres, March Break camps, libraries, community and recreation centres, arenas, pools and fitness centres. Nearby regions announced similar closures.

But while Ontario's top doctor recommended the immediate suspension of all large events and public gatherings of over 250 people, city officials in Toronto said Friday afternoon that suspension does not apply to public transit.

TTC services will operate as usual, city officials said.

Friday saw 19 new cases of the virus confirmed across Ontario, bringing the provincial total to 79.

As concerns grow, residents are seeing chaotic scenes at grocery stores across the GTA as more and more people looked to stockpile supplies amid fears that the novel coronavirus will continue its spread, despite expert warnings to avoid panic buying.

Many shoppers documented their unusual experiences at their local stores on social media, posting pictures and video of winding line ups and empty shelves.

At a Costco location in Markham, for example, the lineup for checkout stretch throughout the entire warehouse space. A staff member told CBC Toronto they had 1,200 shoppers in the first hour the location was open, as opposed to the usual volume of about 300.

A view from the checkout line at a Markham Costco location on Friday morning. (Lisa Naccarato/CBC)

Public health officials, however, are advising against hoarding too many goods that others need as well. Be prepared, they say, but don't allow fears of COVID-19 to fuel irrational purchases and stockpiling of non-essential items.

What should you buy?

On its website, Health Canada says residents should "stock up on essentials, but avoid panic buying."

"It is easier on the supply chain if people gradually build up their household stores instead of making large-scale purchases all at once," the ministry says.

It recommends buying foods like:

  • Dried pasta and sauce
  • Prepared canned soups
  • Canned vegetables and beans

Meanwhile, Health Canada recommends having:

  • Pet food
  • Toilet paper
  • Facial tissue
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Diapers (if you have children who use them)

Also take time to contact your doctor to ensure you will have enough of any essential prescription medications in the event you fall ill and need to stay home.

If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms and are concerned it may be COVID-19, this is a handy guide to the steps you should take.

What is the current status of COVID-19 in Canada?

As of late Thursday, there are at least 179 confirmed and presumed cases of COVID-19 in Canada.

Seventy-nine of those cases are in Ontario, mainly concentrated throughout the GTA. The total includes a new case that was reported late Thursday — in Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the prime minister's wife.

The new cases include men and woman ranging in age from their 20s to 80s. One man, in his 80s, has been hospitalized while the rest — in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region, Ottawa, Niagara, and Waterloo — are in self-isolation.

The situation is fluid and more updates from public health officials across the country are expected throughout today. 

Some of the first dedicated coronavirus screening centres were set-up at six hospitals and health centres throughout the province yesterday.

Cancel large gatherings, Ontario's top doctor says

Ontario's chief medical officer of health is recommending the immediate suspension of all large events and public gatherings of over 250 people

In a memo to be issued today, Dr. David Williams says organizers of smaller gatherings should consult with their local public health unit.

He says all Ontarians should practice social distancing as much as possible to manage the spread of coronavirus.

Universities, colleges move online

A number of post-secondary institutions throughout the GTA have chosen to move classes online.

The list includes:

  • University of Toronto: All on-campus classes will be cancelled across all three campuses from March 16 until April 3, when classes end.
  • Ryerson University: Effective today, all classes and exams are being shifted to "virtual and other alternative forms of delivery." Those changes will be in place by March 23, the school says.
  • York University: All "face to face" instruction ends on March 16.
  • Humber College: Classes will be suspended from March 16 to March 20 and then move online from March 23 to April 17 "wherever possible," the school says. Administration has also cancelled all school-related international travel for students until June 30. 
  • Seneca College: On-campus classes suspended as of March 16. Those classes will be moved online beginning March 23.
  • Sheridan College: Classes will be suspended from March 16 to March 20 to give staff time to move courses online or devise new modes of delivery to ensure students can maintain an appropriate social distance.

Numerous daycares close

Toronto officials announced Friday, the following programs and services will also be cancelled March 14 to April 5:

  • All continuing education and night school courses
  • All permits
  • All EarlyON child and family centres
  • All TDSB eLearning courses
  • All field trips, athletic events and arts performances
  • All school-based meetings and other public meetings and consultations

Peel Region also announced the following services will be closed or cancelled March 14 to April 5:

  • Full-day child care programs
  • Before and after-school programs including March Break camps
  • All EarlyON child and family centres
  • All co-op placement
  • Dual credit programs
  • Extracurricular activities
  • All evening and weekend permits 

Durham Region has also opted to close all Early Years and Child Care programs, March Break camps, youth hubs, and has decided to cancel the community use of schools for the same period. 

How else is COVID-19 affecting day-to-day life?

Concerns about the virus' spread led to a wave of cancellations and postponements yesterday, including in major league sports like basketball, hockey and baseball, as well as major concerts and other kinds of gatherings.

For example, here in the GTA a number of big mosques have either suspended Friday prayer services indefinitely or drastically altered how those services will be delivered.

Furthermore, a Toronto organization that planned to honour the lives of those who died in a plane crash in Iran has cancelled in-person events for its celebration of the Persian New Year.

Tirgan said it has moved its Nowruz festival online. The annual event attracts upwards of 15,000 people, many part of the large Iranian-Canadian diaspora in the Toronto area. Many performances have been postponed, while others will continue this weekend without an audience in order to be recorded, then shown online.

Meanwhile, Ontario's Ministry of Education announced that all publicly-funded elementary, junior and high schools will be closed from March 14 to April 5.

Similarly, the CN Tower will be closed to visitors beginning March 14, Canada Lands Company says. All operations at the tower and Downsview Park have been temporarily suspended until at least April 14, or until local health authorities recommend otherwise.

The Art Gallery of Ontario also announced they will be closed from March 13 to April 5. The Royal Ontario Museum said it also anticipates being closed for the same period. 

With files from Lucas Powers and The Canadian Press