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Ontario set to ease COVID-19 restrictions in modified stage 2 areas, including Toronto

Wednesday, November 04, 2020 @ 1:37 PM | By John Schofield


Ontario is loosening COVID-19 public health restrictions in the province’s so-called hot zones with the introduction of a multi-tiered system that will permit indoor dining and allow gyms to reopen under controlled conditions.

The colour-coded COVID-19 response framework will move Peel Region, York Region and Ottawa into the Orange-Restrict classification effective Nov. 7 at 12:01 a.m., with Toronto following suit on Nov. 14, according to a Nov. 3 government news release.

Ontario reported 987 new cases of COVID-19 on Nov. 4 and 16 more deaths, the highest single-day death toll since mid-June. The number of new cases was down slightly from the record 1,050 new infections reported on Nov. 3, but the rolling, seven-day average of new cases has risen to 971, up from 886 one week ago. 

Under the new response framework, restaurants, bars and food and drink establishments in Orange-Restrict zones will have an indoor capacity limit of 50, tables must be two metres apart and should seat no more than four people, and liquor may only be sold or served from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Patrons must be screened and establishments must close by 10 p.m. Strip clubs will remain closed entirely.

Gyms and fitness facilities in the Orange-Restrict zone will be able to operate with a maximum of 50 people indoors, the maximum stay per person will be 60 minutes, patrons must be screened on arrival, and no spectators will be allowed. For retail establishments, customers will have to be screened at mall entrances and store capacity limits will be considered for the winter months.

The most severe level of restrictions under the graduated framework is Lockdown, followed by Red-Control. No public health units are currently in those categories. The system continues with Orange-Restrict (with five health units, including Eastern Ontario), Yellow-Protect (four health units, including Hamilton, Brantford, Durham Region and Halton Region), and Green-Prevent (all remaining health units).

“This framework is critical to ensuring that public health measures are able to help slow the spread of the virus, while also supporting mental health and other social determinants of health,” chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said in a government news release.

“The framework operates like a dimmer switch, enabling measures and restrictions to be increased and give individuals and families the information they need to adjust their activities and interactions based on local epidemiological data.”

The government will continue to assess the impact of public health measures applied to public health unit regions for 28 days, or two COVID-19 incubation periods, the release stated.

Premier Doug Ford said the system is aimed at protecting public health and safety while avoiding broader closures across the province as the pandemic stretches through the winter months.

“This framework, developed in consultation with our health experts, will serve as an early warning system allowing us to scale up and scale back public health restrictions on a regional or community basis in response to surges and waves of COVID-19,” he said in the news release. “By introducing public health measures sooner, we can keep this deadly virus at bay, bend the curve and reclaim a little more of our normal lives.”

The new framework was welcomed by businesses, but immediately came under fire from some public health officials and doctors for being too lax. 

“Dear #Ontario health officials,” Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, an Ottawa family doctor, said on Twitter, “I am not OK with the statement that it is time to “learn to live with Covid.” As a family doc, mother, community advocate. What that means for ppl with disabilities, seniors, healthcare workers, educators, migrant workers, & BIPOC is unconscionable.”

At a Nov. 3 news conference, Ford also said the government has enhanced its COVID-19 online dashboard, Ontario.ca/coronavirus, to provide more detailed numbers and information, including local cases by public health unit regions, the total number of cases, resolved cases, deaths and tests completed and how many are positive.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips announced that the government will provide $300 million in property tax and energy cost rebates to support businesses in modified stage 2 areas that were required to close or significantly restrict services, including restaurants, bars, gyms and cinemas. Under the new framework, the rebates will also be available for businesses in Control or Lockdown areas.

The property tax rebates will be net of any federal support in respect of property taxes provided through the new Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), so that the rebate will cover costs beyond those covered by CERS, according to the news release.

Starting Nov. 16, eligible businesses will be able to apply for the temporary property tax and energy cost rebates directly to the province through an online application portal and should expect receipt within a few weeks of completing the application, said the release.

“Supporting businesses affected by necessary public health restrictions in regions experiencing a greater risk from COVID-19 is one way we are helping employers manage during these difficult times,” said Phillips, who is scheduled to present the province’s 2020 budget on Nov. 5.

More detail on the rebate program is available here.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Health Coalition, a public health-care advocacy group, reported in a Nov. 3 news release that clear data on how the virus is being transmitted among the general population is still not available, even as COVID-19 cases hit an all time high in the general population.

The release stated that Peel, with the highest rate of case positivity (6.5 per cent of people tested are testing positive) did not contact trace 16.9 per cent of the cases in the last week of October. In the same period, the proportions of COVID-positive cases that have not been contact traced in other modified stage 2 areas are: Toronto 65 per cent; Durham 27.5 per cent; and Ottawa 48.8 per cent.

“There appears to be no plan to improve public information and data about where transmission is occurring, to provide resources for contact tracing in Toronto and other hot spots, or to require the release of information about outbreaks in workplaces,” said the news release. “This raises serious questions. What is the goal of Ontario’s COVID response?”

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact John Schofield at john.schofield@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5891.