Ontario imposes provincewide 'emergency brake' as 3rd wave of COVID-19 hits hard
New measures to take effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
The Ontario government is imposing a provincewide "emergency brake" starting Saturday, but stopped short of a stay-at-home order, despite modelling showing such a measure could significantly curb the surge in COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.
The measure comes into effect as of 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, the province said in a news release, and will be in place for at least four weeks.
"We are facing a serious situation and drastic measures are required to contain the rapid spread of the virus, especially the new variants of concern," Premier Doug Ford said in a statement.
"I know pulling the emergency brake will be difficult on many people across the province, but we must try and prevent more people from getting infected and overwhelming our hospitals. Our vaccine rollout is steadily increasing, and I encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. That is our best protection against this deadly virus."
The Ministry of Health reported another 2,557 confirmed cases of the illness this morning, which is the most on a single day since Jan. 22.
Restrictions will include:
- Prohibiting indoor organized public events and social gatherings, and limiting the capacity for outdoor gatherings to a five-person maximum — except for gatherings with members of the same household, or gatherings of members of one household and one other person who lives alone.
- Limits on in-person shopping: a 50 per cent capacity limit for supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores, indoor farmers' markets, other stores that primarily sell food and pharmacies; and a 25 per cent limit for all other retail including big box stores.
- No personal care services.
- No indoor and outdoor dining. Take out, delivery and drive-thru options are allowed.
- Prohibiting the use of facilities for indoor or outdoor sports and recreational fitness, with very limited exceptions.
- The closure of day camps.
- Limiting capacity at weddings, funerals, and religious services to 15 per cent occupancy per room indoors, and to the number of people who can maintain two metres of physical distance outdoors. This does not include social gatherings associated with these services such as receptions, which are not permitted indoors and are limited to five people outdoors.
In hotspot regions like Toronto, the new measures are very similar to restrictions that are already in place. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the province did not issue a stay-at-home order like the one from the start of the year, because officials saw then that it had "tremendous ill effect on children and adults."
WATCH | Ford explains restrictions:
Elliott added that with the warm weather coming, officials don't want to prohibit Ontarians from enjoying the outdoors. However, previous stay-at-home orders did not preclude people from going outdoors.
When asked why his government started to ease measures just a few short weeks ago before shutting things back down again, Ford said it was due to "a combination of things," such as local officials pushing for things to reopen, and an inconsistent supply of vaccines.
"You walk down the streets in your area and the patios are packed," Ford said, just weeks after his own government allowed patios to open.
WATCH | Some doctors concerned 'emergency brake' isn't right approach:
Provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath slammed Ford's response in a series of tweets Thursday.
"Doug Ford walked us into this lockdown with eyes wide open. While experts were warning him of explosive growth of more deadly variants, he cancelled public health protections," she said.
"It never should have come to this. The third wave didn't have to be this horrific."
Once again today’s announcement is too little and far too late. The public health measures fall short of what many experts are calling for. That will only prolong the suffering — it’s the same failed approach that got us to where we are today. 3/—@AndreaHorwath
Toronto Mayor John Tory called the province's move "the right thing to do," but not every local official was so glowing.
Aurora, Ont., Mayor Tom Mrakas issued a statement saying that the province needs to be more strategic to combat strain on the health-care system.
"This is being called a province wide 'shutdown,' yet retail is open, malls are open, industrial and manufacturing are open, you can go play a round of golf with [three] others … what exactly is being shut down?" he asked. "This is not a shutdown; it is a closure of a select group of business who are largely not responsible for the spread. How many cases have been in a manufacturing/industrial setting? How many in local grocery stores?
"Many more examples and yet they have not been shut down."
Ford also said that people must be vigilant and not gather with Easter coming up.
"We must all avoid social gatherings," Ford said.
At Thursday's news conference, Ford also referred to the coronavirus variants that are spreading through the province as "new." However, Ontario has known how dangerous the variants are since the B117 variant tore through the Roberta Place long-term care home in January of this year, resulting in more than 70 deaths.
"The new variants are far more dangerous than before. They spread faster and do more harm than the virus we were fighting last year," Ford said.
The premier also said keeping the province's schools open is a "top priority," adding that officials will "closely monitor the situation" and "not hesitate to act."
Education Minister Stephen Lecce tweeted Thursday morning that schools will remain open because they are "critical for students' mental health & learning."
"The chief medical officer of health has said schools remain safe," Lecce said.
One Toronto-area school board had sent a letter to parents warning of a four-week closure that would coincide with the shutdown, but has since said the information it shared with parents is incorrect.
Education unions in some of the worst-hit regions have called for classes to move to online-only immediately after this long weekend.
Entire families sickened
Meanwhile, a group of 153 ICU physicians issued an open letter to the government Thursday urging stricter public health measures.
The letter, which came before the province's announcement, warns that the doctors are seeing younger patients — including parents of school-aged children — and entire families sickened by the more contagious coronavirus variants of concern.
"Even if we had unlimited ICU capacity, allowing these [variants of concern] to spread exponentially is unethical," the letter says.
"As ICU doctors, we are the last line of defence, and we are ringing the alarm bell. Please hear it."
Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, said on Twitter that it took eight hours for the province to come up with a plan that "will not protect people properly.
"It took [six] hours to get 153 ICU doctors to sign a letter explaining why this won't work," he wrote Thursday.
WATCH | Dr. Kali Barrett speaks to CBC's Dwight Drummond about why the measures don't go far enough:
With files from Mike Crawley