Political leaders have joined medical experts in calling on the Ford government to take action to prevent a catastrophic increase in COVID-19 cases following the holiday season.
While every official with access to a microphone pleaded with Ontarians to see only members of their own households over the holidays, some also acknowledged that not everyone will do so and the province should plan for the fallout.
"The vast majority of people are doing their part by staying apart and trying to follow the guidelines," said NDP leader Andrea Horwath at a virtual press conference. "But there was a jump in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving and we'd be foolish to assume that that can't happen again."
Horwath is calling for the province to introduce in-workplace testing, expanding in-school asymptomatic testing, and guaranteeing paid sick days and paid family-care days for all workers.
In response, a spokesperson for the Minister of Health said Ontario has introduced rapid COVID-19 testing at some workplaces, an initiative that will be expanding as Ontario receives 1.5 million more rapid tests by the end of the month.
"Panbio tests will also be used in a broader eight-week pilot for participating employers in the private, public and non-profit sectors, prioritizing access for health care settings, essential frontline settings, and congregate settings," the spokesperson said. "This pilot program is an important opportunity to learn about the value of antigen screening for asymptomatic workers in a range of workplace settings and will inform future decisions about safely and fully re-opening the economy."
Asymptomatic testing at schools is also ongoing, the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Quebec is implementing additional restrictions from Dec. 25 to Jan. 11 that will include keeping schools closed, a work-from-home order, and shutting down in-person shopping aside from groceries and other essentials — and while Horwath didn't call on the province to do the same, she said Ontario may have to in order to prevent its hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
"The situation is urgent and despite careening into a deeper disaster, the Ford government is just holding photo ops and waiting for a vaccine," she said.
Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he has been in talks with the province about what will happen when the 28-day period of the region's current lockdown ends on Monday. While he wouldn't give details, he said he's been publicly in favour of a Quebec-like approach and is asking that the announcement be made far enough in advance for people to plan around it, and for it to include the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
"I think we need to do more, not less," Tory said. "I think it needs to be regional in nature so we leave people with fewer options as to where they might go."
Meanwhile, Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, presented information showing that COVID-19 has spread rapidly in the city in recent weeks, adding 25,000 cases, as many as the first seven months of the pandemic. "The holidays in 2020 pose a real threat and demand difficult decisions from all of us," she said.
Tory characterized the discussions with the premier as productive.
On Tuesday, Ford asked if Ontario will be following Quebec's lead in implementing a holiday shutdown and he didn't rule it out, saying "everything's on the table." Health Minister and deputy premier Christine Elliott weighed in as well, saying there are ongoing discussions and emphasizing the strain on some of the province's hospitals.
The medical community has been calling for action in recent weeks, with a coalition of leaders of key health-care organizations — the Ontario Hospital Association, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, the Ontario Medical Association, the Registered Practical Nurses' Association of Ontario, and Respiratory Therapy Society of Ontario — issuing joint statements with that demand.
"It’s the government’s responsibility to put in place strong public health measures we know can prevent and control the spread of the virus," one statement said. "And, now more than ever, every Ontarian has a moral responsibility to strictly adhere to these important measures."
The registered nurses doubled down on that Wednesday, calling for a two-week provincewide lockdown.
Meanwhile, a new initiative from Destination Ontario, an agency of the Ministry of Tourism, appeared to promote local travel — quite the opposite of the stay-at-home messaging from health officials. Tourism Minister Lisa MacLeod announced a new ad campaign and website, ontariotravel.net, that offers direct links for Ontarians to book Ontario travel packages and encourages people to explore Ontario.
However, her office said the government is not actually recommending people travel.
"To clarify — the purpose of the campaign is to support local — but to be clear regional travel is not recommended," said press secretary Dakota Brasier. "This campaign aims to encourage Ontarians across the province, to support our local small businesses that promote our pride of people and our incredible community right outside our doorstep. Our government is proud to support our locally owned businesses when they need us the most."