By Sneh Duggal and Jack Hauen
The government unveiled a three-stage plan for reopening the province’s economy that stresses a “gradual” approach. The framework does not contain any specific dates or priority sectors, but provides a high-level look at the criteria for when restrictions will be loosened.
“The framework is about how we’re reopening, not when we’re reopening,” said Premier Doug Ford, adding that "this is a roadmap, it’s not a calendar." He unveiled the plan at a press conference on Monday afternoon alongside Health Minister Christine Elliott, Finance Minister Rod Phillips and Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade Vic Fedeli.
The plan outlined some of the criteria Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams would consider before advising the government to ease public health restrictions. This includes a “consistent two-to-four week decrease in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases” along with decreases in the number of new cases in hospitals and the rate of cases that can’t be traced. “Sufficient” hospital capacity, “ongoing availability” of personal protective equipment, the ability of local public health units to contact at least 90 per cent of COVID-19 contacts within a day, ongoing testing and new ways of testing are also listed as things to consider.
Stage 1 of the reopening phase will open some “select” workplaces and some outdoor spaces, and will increase the number of people allowed at small events like funerals.
Stage 2 workplaces may include some service industries and some office and retail spaces. Some larger public gatherings will be permitted.
Stage 3, the final stage, will see all workplaces opened, as well as further relaxed restrictions on public gatherings. But concerts and sporting events will still be restricted “for the foreseeable future,” the document says.
Each of the three stages will last two to four weeks, according to the plan, which dubbed this approach as Ontario's "new normal." At the end of that timeframe, the government may move on to the next stage, keep the current stage going, or re-tighten measures if cases surge significantly.
The reopening of schools and child care centres is not tied to any of the stages, with the framework merely saying it will happen slowly and in phases.
“No one wants the economy to open up more than I do,” Ford said in stressing the gradual approach. “But we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t take unnecessary risks.”
The premier noted that Ontario is "in the peak" and that while the province seems to be flattening the epidemiological curve, "progress doesn’t mean we can quit now."
"That’s why I won’t set hard dates until we are ready, because the virus travels at its own speed," he said, adding that Ontario's reopening plan needs to be "responsible" and "measured."
“There is light at the end of this tunnel,” Elliott said, though she asked Ontarians to continue to stay home and practice social distancing for the time being.
The government said all workplaces would have to follow COVID-19 directives and guidelines when they reopen, even if they restrict certain activities, and that it would work with health and safety associations to provide employers with advice through documents and training. Additionally, workplaces would need to have a plan “that promotes and adheres to strict hygiene and sanitation standards, and physical distancing to the extent possible.”
Phillips said the workplaces and services that are considered "lower risk" or can "immediately meet public health guidance" will open first. But when asked about examples of businesses that would be included in the first phase of reopening, Fedeli said the government would not specify any workplaces today.
The government also said the provincial committee tasked with overseeing the reopening of the economy and MPPs will be reaching out to various sectors to “understand the unique impacts of COVID-19” that each is facing and what they need during the recovery period.
The announcement brought mixed reactions from opposition parties. The NDP said it supports the Progressive Conservative government's plan to reopen the economy "cautiously and in phases," but also called the framework "disappointingly vague" — a criticism echoed by Ontario Liberals.
New Democrats called on the government to ensure workplaces that do reopen have access to personal protective equipment, a ramping up of testing — including asymptomatic individuals — in the community, inspections of reopened businesses and more "containment efforts" in long-term care homes.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he agreed with the government's plan to make a consistent decrease in the number of new cases one of the requirements for reopening the economy.
"My biggest concern is that Ontario does not have the testing infrastructure required to start returning to normal," he said in a statement. "The province has struggled to meet testing targets, even with the majority of people in isolation."
Ontario's framework was welcomed by the Business Council of Canada.
“Premier Ford and his team have developed a responsible, balanced framework to reopen the province’s economy based on the best available advice from health experts, recognizing that we are in for a long and difficult battle against COVID-19,” said Goldy Hyder, the council's president, in a statement.
The framework announcement comes after weeks of Ford and other politicians across the country being barraged with questions about when public health measures — like physical distancing and closures — would start to be eased. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have already announced some steps for reopening, with parks, beaches and golf courses now open in the east coast province. Ontario’s premier has maintained for days that the province will need to be “cautious” when it comes to re-opening the economy and that he’s not in favour of opening up “the floodgates.”
Ford has previously said while it was a tough decision to shut down the economy, “it’s going to be twice as difficult to open this up and do it methodically.”
"My biggest biggest fear is all of a sudden we get another wave and it hits us, I just want to make sure we do it properly, cautiously, and not just jump into this,” the premier said on April 13.
Ford lashed out at a group of people who turned up at Queen’s Park on April 25 to protest public health measures and closures.
"We have a bunch of yahoos out in front of Queen's Park protesting," said Ford, calling the protestors "irresponsible,” "reckless" and "selfish."
Both Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have indicated that a return to normal is unlikely without a COVID-19 vaccine.
"The hard fact is until we find a vaccine, going back to normal means putting lives at risk," Ford previously said. The provincial government has announced $20 million for COVID-19-related research, with work already underway by Canadian researchers to develop vaccines and treatments for the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, earlier on Monday, Trudeau said provinces have authority over how they reopen their economies and that each province is facing different circumstances.
The prime minister said he has “full confidence” in the premiers to ease restrictions in a way that suits their provinces or territories and their residents. He said Canadians can expect to see joint federal-provincial guidelines on reopening the economy “in the coming days.”
Current closures and updates
On April 23 the government announced it was extending emergency orders under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act until May 6. Several closures are in place under these orders including bars, restaurants, playgrounds and sports facilities, non-essential workplaces, private schools and most child-care centres. The government amended the orders on April 25 to allow people to use community gardens.
“These gardens are an essential source of fresh food for some individuals and families, including those who face food insecurity,” the government said in a press release, adding that local health officials would provide instructions on physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting measures at these sites.
Meanwhile, public schools will stay closed until at least May 31 to limit the spread of the virus, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced on April 26. Schools were initially scheduled to re-open on May 4.
The government will also keep provincial parks and conservation sites closed until May 31.
Photo Credit: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star