TORONTO — Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region will move into lockdown next week as the Ontario government tries to bring soaring COVID-19 infections in the two hot spots under control.
Premier Doug Ford said Friday that the measure was urgently needed to prevent more people dying from the virus.
“This virus, it spreads like wildfire, and in certain parts of the province it’s spreading at alarming rates in the community,” he said.
“Last week, modelling showed that if nothing was done we could face 6,000 daily cases overwhelming our ICUs shortly after that. More deaths. More losses. But we can avoid this if we take further action now.”
As of Monday, Toronto and Peel — which have reported the highest number of daily cases for weeks — will be under the toughest measures available in the province’s COVID-19 restriction system.
That means, among other things, no indoor organized public events or social gatherings except with members of the same household, and a recommendation to only leave the house for essential reasons.
The lockdown will also limit non-essential retailers to curbside pickup, ban indoor dining at restaurants and bars, close personal care services, and shutter indoor sports facilities.
Schools and childcare services will remain open.
Grocery stores, pharmacies and big box retailers will be deemed essential and stay open, with capacity limits.
Ford tried to assure residents of Toronto and Peel that they would still be able to get food and supplies they need during the lockdown.
“Avoid panic buying,” he said. “There’s no need to buy more than you need for a week or two.”
The lockdown will last a minimum of 28 days and the province said it will fine people $750 for violating public health rules.
The government also asked residents in “higher transmission areas” to avoid travel to parts of the province with lower transmission, except for essential reasons.
The announcement of the lockdown came as Ontario reported 1,418 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, along with eight new deaths related to the virus. There were 400 new cases in Peel Region, 393 in Toronto and 168 in York Region.
The latest figures pushed the province over the 100,000 case mark, for a total of 100,790 infections.
Toronto Mayor John Tory welcomed the lockdown and thanked Ford for listening to local public health officials who pushed for stronger measures.
The mayor acknowledged, however, that moving to lockdown would be very hard on small businesses that have already endured months of financial hardship.
“The business community will come back, the city, and the business people, and all the other people are too good to keep down,” Tory said. “But we’ve got to get the virus down on the ground first and this is the best way.”
In Peel Region — which is made up of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon — the local medical officer of health also welcomed the new restrictions, but stressed they are only short-term measures.
“We really need to be thinking about some of the underlying factors that drive transmission in our community and how we can address through policy, as well as targeted outreach and community engagement,” Dr. Lawrence Loh said.
Measures unlikely to be enough: epidemiologist
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said the new measures are likely to slow community spread of the virus, but will not be enough to dramatically lower surging case counts.
The government is still not restricting the right things to strike at where the virus is being spread, he said.
“We’re letting weddings go, we’re letting religious services happen,” he said. “These are things that are happening without masks, like singing and hugging, these sorts of things. We had to make those stop.”
During the lockdown, weddings, funerals and other religious services are allowed with a maximum of 10 people indoors and outdoors if physical distancing can be maintained.
Furness said the lockdowns will not be enough to bring infection levels down to a point where people can safely gather for the holidays.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, which last week called for a 28-day lockdown of the entire province, also called the new measures insufficient.
“We need to suffocate this virus, because if not, the virus will continue to suffocate our health, our health-care system, and our economy,” Doris Grinspun said.
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The president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario slammed the government for what he said was a refusal to acknowledge the connection between schools being open and COVID-19 cases increasing.
“In bypassing schools with today’s lockdown announcement, Ford and Education Minister Lecce are letting schools remain open, with no data to support their claim that the coronavirus is not being spread by schools,” Sam Hammond said in a statement.
The union has called for increased measures to protect schools, including smaller class sizes and better ventilation.
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Meanwhile, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the choice to keep big box retailers open during the lock down, while closing smaller shops a “gut punch”.
“It is outrageous that today’s restrictions once again create an unfair advantage for big box operators like Walmart and Costco, leaving Main Street retailers to shoulder the burden alone,” the group said.
With files from John Chidley-Hill and Denise Paglinawan.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2020.