TORONTO – More public health measures are being introduced by the Ontario government in response to the “alarming” increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations fuelled by the Omicron variant.
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford announced the province is returning to a “modified stage two” of Ontario’s “Roadmap to Reopen” beginning on Jan. 5.
“Omicron case counts are rising exponentially across the province. We face a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead,” said Ford during a media conference. “As we do, virtually everyone in this province will know someone who has been exposed to this virus.”
Among the new restrictions coming into effect on Wednesday are:
- reducing social gathering limits to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors (currently 10 and 25, respectively);
- limiting capacity at organized public events to five people indoors;
- requiring businesses and organizations to ensure employees work remotely unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site;
- limiting capacity at indoor weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites and ceremonies to 50 per cent capacity of the particular room. Outdoor services are limited to the number of people that can maintain two metres of physical distance. Social gatherings associated with these services must adhere to the social gathering limits;
- retail settings, including shopping malls, permitted at 50 per cent capacity. For shopping malls, physical distancing will be required in line-ups, loitering will not be permitted and food courts will be required to close;
- personal care services permitted at 50 per cent capacity and other restrictions. Saunas, steam rooms, and oxygen bars closed;
- closing indoor meeting and event spaces with limited exceptions but permitting outdoor spaces to remain open with restrictions;
- public libraries are limited to 50 per cent capacity.
- closing indoor dining at restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments;
- outdoor dining with restrictions, takeout, drive-thru and delivery is permitted;
- restricting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and the consumption of alcohol on-premise in businesses or settings after 11 p.m. with delivery and takeout, grocery/convenience stores and other liquor stores exempted;
- closing indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas (rehearsals and recorded performances permitted with restrictions);
- closing museums, galleries, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions, amusement parks and waterparks, tour and guide services and fairs, rural exhibitions, and festivals. Outdoor establishments permitted to open with restrictions and with spectator occupancy, where applicable, limited to 50 per cent capacity;
- closing indoor horse racing tracks, car racing tracks and other similar venues. Outdoor establishments permitted to open with restrictions and with spectator occupancy limited to 50 per cent capacity;
- closing indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities, including gyms, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sports leagues. Outdoor facilities are permitted to operate but with the number of spectators not to exceed 50 per cent occupancy and other requirements; and
- all publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning starting Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends and operational considerations. School buildings would be permitted to open for child care operations, including emergency child care, to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely and for staff who are unable to deliver quality instruction from home.
The province also announced that Directive 2 will be reinstated for hospitals as of Jan. 5, meaning all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures are on hold.
Ford stated during the media conference that data is showing the Omicron variant is less severe, however, it is highly transmissible and has resulted in a larger number of hospital admissions relative to intensive care unit (ICU) admissions. The premier said current data in Ontario shows one per cent of Omicron cases require hospital care.
“This is a problem that will only get worse as we confront the looming wave of Omicron,” said Ford.
Added the premier, “Ontario Health modelling tells us we could be thousands of beds short in the coming weeks. We can’t let that happen.”
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, anticipates these measures will be short-term.
“We anticipate a very short, quick and rapid approach to this epidemic and impact on the health care system. That is why these measures are timely, proportionate to the risk. They should diminish the burden on the health care system. They should buy us time to increase third doses, prevent hospitalization,” he said.
Ford acknowledged that moving students to online learning “isn’t the news anyone wants to hear.”
“I know this isn’t the news anyone wants to hear, but with the new variant the ground is shifting every single day,” said Ford.
“The level of absenteeism we are seeing in other sectors tells us, with absolute certainty, that operating schools and ensuring teachers are on the job and not home sick will be a challenge we cannot overcome in the short-term.”
Added Ford, “I know online learning isn’t ideal, but above all else I want to provide students and parents with certainty – not the turmoil of school closures because not enough staff are available to teach our kids. Now, these decisions will disappoint people, they will confuse some people, and they will anger some people. I understand all those reactions. As premier, these are the hardest decisions I make, but we follow the data and the fact is this: Omicron spreads like wildfire… if we do not act, the results could be catastrophic. It is a risk I cannot take.”
Ford was asked multiple times by reporters if schools would reopen on Jan. 17, or “should parents assume they are closed until the end of January?”
He did not provide an answer, instead praising Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who “has done everything in his power” to keep schools moving forward throughout the pandemic.
“The number one priority is to make sure the kids have an opportunity to learn online, but we have to protect the overall system. When I talk about the system, I’m talking hospitalizations, the schools, the economy, the businesses – that’s who we have to protect,” said Ford. “We’ve never seen anything like this, and let’s keep in mind that this isn’t just Ontario-based. Everyone watches the news and sees what is happening across the world, you see what’s happening across our country and our U.S. neighbours. We’re going to make sure we throw everything we have, we will not spare a penny, to make sure we get through this surge of Omicron cases.”