Science experts didn't recommend Ontario ban outdoor amenities, COVID-19 panel member says

Ontario's scientific experts did not advise Premier Doug Ford to ban the use of outdoor recreational amenities to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, a member of the COVID-19 science advisory table says.

Outdoor activities safer than indoor activities, Dr. Peter Jüni says

A baseball diamond is visible behind a fence in London, Ont. (Travis Dolynny/CBC)

Ontario's scientific experts did not advise Premier Doug Ford to ban the use of outdoor recreational amenities to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, a member of the COVID-19 science advisory table says.

"No, of course not. The opposite," Dr. Peter Jüni , the scientific director of the COVID-19 science advisory table, told CBC News Network on Monday.

The ban means nobody can play baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball, frisbee golf and pickleball outdoors at facilities, fields or courts designated for these sports. The restrictions, announced on Friday, took effect on Saturday. The province also closed playgrounds, play structures and equipment but rescinded that particular restriction.

According to the Ontario government, the intent of the restrictions on outdoor amenities is to prevent large gatherings.

Jüni said the science is clear that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities during the pandemic and that provincially legislated paid sick days are needed to prevent new infections.

Dr. Peter Jüni , director of Ontario’s COVID Scientific Advisory Table, says he nearly quit the position over the weekend after the Ontario government chose not to implement the table's major recommendations to curb the spread of COVID-19. (CBC)

"Look, what we know is that we estimate, and this is just an estimate, that outdoor activities are probably roughly 20 times safer than indoor activities," Jüni said. 

"This does not mean that you can't have unsafe behaviour outdoors. There's no way that we can be safe indoors with all the people who don't belong to our household. Inside, you can't be safe."

Decisions made based on political considerations do not help to control the pandemic, he said.

"The most important part now is that we address the root cause of this pandemic and playgrounds are not the root cause, really not. What we see is a pandemic now that is focused, unfortunately, on essential workers and their families," Jüni said.

"We need to pay people in an uncomplicated and efficient manner to stay home if they're either sick or exposed. And this means generous, immediate and guaranteed. Otherwise, this doesn't work, he added. 

"If you live from paycheque-to-paycheque and you can't pay your rent, if something just drops away, you can't just wait and have some complicated process."

Jüni told CBC Radio's As it Happens on Monday that he nearly quit on Friday over Ford's response but decided against it because stepping down would make things worse in Ontario.

Baseball bats lean against a fence in a baseball diamond in Hamilton. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In a regulation issued on Friday, the government said people will not be allowed to use outdoor recreational amenities and these amenities include outdoor sports facilities and multi-use fields.

The regulation makes specific reference to baseball diamonds, soccer fields, frisbee golf locations, tennis, platform tennis, table tennis, pickleball courts and basketball courts, BMX parks and skate parks.

Jüni said he wondered if he needed to be clearer with his recommendations.

"I don't think that we can be any clearer. This is a problem at the receiving end. We need to stop having political considerations guide this pandemic. This does not work. It hasn't worked in the past. It won't work now. It hasn't worked in other jurisdictions. Why should it work in Ontario? It does not."

Sports advocate calls on province to lift ban on amenities

In an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning, Kristi Herold, the founder and CEO of Sport and Social Group, urged the province to lift the ban on outdoor recreational amenities. The club runs recreational sports leagues for adults across Ontario.

Herold said she believes Ontario residents should be allowed to play organized sports for the sake of their mental and physical well-being. She said there are ways to do so safely with public health protocols in place.

"What I would like is for our province to listen to our Ontario science advisory table. And the science that they are sharing with us is saying 99.9 per cent of transmission is occurring from indoor activity," she said.

"I believe we should be encouraging people to get outside, to play and be active in a safe way. There are protocols and frameworks that we can easily put into place, whether you are playing a game of pickup, or playing an organized game of soccer, or softball, or beach volleyball, or practising with your team. The science is backing us up."

A basketball net hangs from a backboard in Ottawa. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Herold said people in Ontario, especially under lockdown, need the social connection and physical outlet they glean from sports.

To play sports safely in a pandemic, participants would need to keep two metres apart, and if they cannot maintain that distance, they would need to wear masks. They would also be required not carpool to games and not go into locker rooms. They would have to stay safely distanced on the sidelines, and then they would have to go home after games instead of going indoors with friends.

Herold said not being able to play sports and be active outdoors is creating a lot of sadness in Ontario. Physical health is directly related to mental health, she added. As well, all team sports should not be treated the same because softball, for example, doesn't have the same contact as rugby, she said.

"We know that play is a critical part of life for all ages, youth and adults," she said.

With files from CBC News Network, Metro Morning, As It Happens