Premier Doug Ford defended Ontario’s new COVID-19 restrictions system Wednesday, saying it will help the province respond early to flare-ups of the virus despite experts warning it could lead to further community spread.
The colour-coded system unveiled a day earlier - when Ontario hit a new high in daily cases - has prompted concerns that it is too lenient and would allow for fast-rising cases before strong restrictions are imposed.
But Ford said the system strikes a balance between the needs of struggling businesses and the fight against the virus.
“I’m not too sure if (critics) ... actually read the whole plan, it’s about early intervention,” Ford said. “To avoid getting to the red zone. That’s what this is about.”
The plan is meant to provide up-to-date information to residents and businesses on how their region is faring, so they can make informed decisions during the pandemic, Ford said.
“There’s only so much a government can do,” he said. “We need the continued support from the people of Ontario.”
Under the new system, areas with the lowest levels of virus case counts, positivity rates and community transmission will be placed in a green category, with the most permissive rules.
It then moves upward through yellow, orange and red categories, with increasingly strict measures, and has a grey “lockdown” level where maximum measures would be implemented.
Critics said some of the system’s metrics are problematic, pointing to the requirement of a 10 per cent positivity rate before an area moves from the orange category to the red one.
Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health said the rules could be subject to change.
“If we find that there are issues with the framework, we’ll certainly be making recommendations to the government,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe said.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist with the University of Toronto, said the new framework sets the bar to move a community into the red category so high that it won’t be achieved before significant community spread occurs.
“This is guaranteeing a really disastrous outcome,” he said. “The way it’s been implemented is ham-fisted and frankly dangerous”.
Furness added that the province needs to do more surveillance testing of people in at-risk positions, such as front-line health workers, bar and restaurant workers and teachers in schools with poor ventilation, to better control the virus.
“We know where COVID goes and we absolutely know the conditions under which COVID spreads,” he said. “Apart from long-term care homes, we haven’t done any kind of proactive surveillance testing.”
The CEO of the Ontario Registered Nurses’ Association said the new system will contribute to spread of the illness and parts of the province could end up in lockdowns in the new year.
“Winter is coming, and by then we will have no chance if things are out of control,” said Doris Grinspun, who suggested Ford was under pressure from his own legislators to ease restrictions in certain areas.
“This is a defining moment for the premier. Will he follow the best evidence of epidemiologists and public health officials or ... will he cater to the pressure of his caucus?”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she’s concerned that Ford is not listening to health experts.
“The government needs to really have a hard look if that many experts, and there are many coming forward, are saying this is going to march us right into a crisis,” she said.
Meanwhile, the operator of Landmark Cinemas in Ontario said it will not reopen some of its theatres in regions that are placed in the orange category, despite being allowed to do so.
The rules for that category limit theatres to admitting 50 people per complex, and the company’s CEO called the move “simply uneconomic”.
“We are incredibly frustrated and disappointed that our industry is effectively mandated closed in this classification,” Bill Walker said in a statement.
“Closing venues that have demonstrated the ability to operate safely will only encourage people to gather in venues where the province has less or no control over mandated health measures.”
Ontario reported 987 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and 16 new deaths related to the novel coronavirus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2020.