As protests spread and other provinces lift restrictions, Ontario's Doug Ford stays the course
Provincial government considering slightly quicker timeline for easing COVID-19 capacity limits, sources say
Even before any truckers started their engines to join the Ottawa-bound convoy against COVID-19 restrictions, Ontario Premier Doug Ford laid out a timeline for easing the latest round of the province's public health measures.
In the three weeks since that timeline was announced, the political situation has changed, much more so than the pandemic situation.
- Protesters in Ottawa have dug in and are about to begin their third week of blocking streets in the nation's capital.
- A protest is snarling Windsor's Ambassador Bridge, a route that carries one-quarter of all Canada-U.S. cross-border trade.
- Police in Toronto closed streets around Queen's Park on Wednesday amid rumblings that demonstrators are heading there, with plans to stay.
- Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and other provinces have announced (to varying degrees) accelerated timelines for lifting COVID-19 restrictions.
None of this has prompted Ford to change his plans for reopening Ontario — at least not yet.
Multiple sources close to the government tell CBC News that the Ministry of Health is preparing options for cabinet to speed up the timeline of ending existing capacity limits in indoor spaces.
Ford likely to 'stick to the plan,' adviser says
Under the current timeline, Ontario is due to take its next step on Feb. 21, by lifting all capacity limits in restaurants, bars, cinemas and gyms, and allowing large spectator venues to increase attendance to 50 per cent of capacity. The remaining capacity restrictions are due to lift three weeks later, on March 14.
The sources did not provide any proposed new dates for easing restrictions, but one of Ford's senior political advisers said any changes to the timeline would not be dramatic.
"People like it when you have a plan and when you stick to the plan," the adviser said. "I don't see any upside to going in a different direction."
That's why you won't see Ford follow Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's lead and announce an immediate dropping of restrictions or a quick end to Ontario's indoor mask mandates and proof of vaccination requirements.
"We have no plans currently to drop the [vaccine] passport situation or masking. We believe that masking is going to be important for some time to come," Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told a news conference Wednesday.
Which brings us back to the trucker-led protests, since their many demands include ending all vaccine mandates and mask mandates, most of which fall under provincial jurisdiction.
Protests a political hot potato
There are growing calls for Ford to get more involved in bringing the protests to an end. After all, Ottawa and Windsor are in Ontario.
"I call on the government of Ontario to join us in securing an end to these illegal blockades in several Ontario cities and to apply the law," Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told a news conference Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, Ford spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the protests, which Ford has called occupations. Yet conversations with Ford's team suggest they've been reluctant to engage with the protesters or toss Trudeau a political lifeline.
Ford and his top advisers "want to leave this to be Trudeau's problem," a source close to the premier's office told CBC. That echoes language from Candice Bergen, now interim leader of the federal Conservative Party.
An argument could be made that the protest is actually Trudeau's problem.
The protesters don't appear to care who has the jurisdiction to end vaccine passport programs and mask rules. Many of them don't even come from Ontario. If Doug Ford lifted every single COVID-19 restriction in Ontario tomorrow, would the protesters pack up and leave?
Their anger is pretty much laser focused on the prime minister. What's going on in Ottawa is as much an anti-Trudeau-government protest as it is an anti-vaccine-mandate protest. After all, convoy organizers proposed ousting his elected government.
Trudeau has clearly picked a side in regards to the protesters, calling them a fringe minority. Ford has not. While he is saying they should end their protests, he has not taken a firm stance on their demands.
A senior Ford government official questions whether the premier speaking out against the protesters' demands would accomplish anything other than inflame the situation.
"To bring the protests to an end, it goes back to the police enforcing the law. There's only so much any politician can do," the official said Thursday. "The political solution is to give [the protesters] what they want. We're not going to do that."
The official said lines of communication are open between the Ford and Trudeau governments, and both are prepared to provide police with any support they request to help end the blockades.
Border protest turns up heat on Ford
The potential economic damage to Ontario from the traffic jam at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing could ramp up the pressure on Ford.
"The ongoing illegal occupation and blockade happening in Ontario must stop. The Ambassador Bridge is one of the most vital trade corridors in our country," Ford said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, on the third day of the protest at the border.
"I remain confident that our police forces in Ontario, along with Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Border Services Agency, will take the appropriate steps to address the evolving situations in our cities and bring them to an end."
That doesn't sound like Ford is about to give the truckers his cell number (something he is fond of doing with many voters) to try to talk them out of their tactics.
There's pressure on Ford from multiple fronts:
- pressure to respond to the broader public's genuine fatigue with COVID-19 measures;
- pressure not to be seen as capitulating to the demands of protesters, whose tactics are largely unpopular;
- pressure not to lift public health measures so quickly that it brings another big wave of infections.
"We want it done in a logical, methodical way," the senior adviser to Ford told me. "We want it open, but we want it to stay open."
Lifting restrictions a matter of timing
While there is a timetable for lifting capacity restrictions in indoor spaces, Ontario does not yet have a timetable for ending its proof of vaccination system or its province-wide mask mandate.
Neither will stay in place forever, so the question becomes one of timing. From the political standpoint, the more specific questions are: will they be lifted before Ontario's election on June 2, and what will happen with the infection rate as a result?
Almost exactly a year ago, Ford announced plans for lifting Ontario's stay-at-home order and phasing out restrictions. Within weeks, a new wave of COVID-19 was building, Ford was forced to announce a new round of closures, and the death toll kept rising.
As much as Ford and his PCs want to lift the mask mandate and vaccine passport, the absolute last thing they'd want would be yet another pandemic wave to hit Ontario this April, bringing hospitalizations and deaths in May, just as they're on the campaign trail trying to persuade voters to re-elect them.