Ontario Premier Doug Ford is poised to announce how the province will start to reopen its economy and phase out some emergency restrictions that were imposed to combat COVID-19.
The announcement — scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday — will lay out a plan to lift restrictions on construction and to allow the reopening of retail stores that are not in malls, as well as seasonal businesses, pet services and household maintenance, according to a draft of the plan obtained by CBC News.
The draft document does not indicate when Ontario will begin to phase out its semi-lockdown, but Ford is expected to reveal the date during his daily briefing.
A key question looming over the announcement is whether Ontario’s public health system has enough of a handle on the pandemic that Stage 1 of the reopening plan can be launched safely.
- A consistent two-to-four week decrease in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases.
- Sufficient acute and critical care hospital capacity to respond to potential surges.
- Approximately 90 per cent of new COVID-19 case contacts being reached by local public health officials within one day.
- Ongoing testing of suspected cases to detect new outbreaks quickly.
Have those criteria been met?
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams seemed unsure on Tuesday.
“We haven’t had all those things come together where we say now we’re ready to enter Stage 1,” said Williams. “I think we’re getting closer but if it was already there, I would have already recommended it.”
Williams did not attend Wednesday’s provincial briefing.
“In general, I think that the trends are very positive,” said Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe when asked whether the province is hitting its targets.
“We aren’t at Stage 1 quite yet but we’re asking people to get ready for Stage 1,” Ford said during his news conference Wednesday.
While the publicly available data seems to suggest Ontario has seen a steady decrease in the daily number of new cases and has sufficient hospital capacity, it’s not so clear whether testing and contact tracing are adequate.
“If we’re not testing widely enough, if we’re only catching five per cent of actual cases in the population, that’s going to be a problem, and that’s not going to be sufficient to keep cases down once we start lifting the physical distancing measures,” said epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
“We don’t really know at this point the number of people who are mildly symptomatic who are being turned away [from testing].”
Tuite said in an interview Wednesday that she’s worried about the possibility that Ontario is seeing lower numbers of confirmed cases in part because testing is being restricted.
Ontario will roll out a plan for wider testing of the general public “very soon,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said Wednesday.
“It’s going to be really important as we open up parts of our economy that we do … that surveillance testing in the community,” she said during the premier’s daily news conference.
The province’s framework says Stage 1 would involve:
- Opening select workplaces that can meet current public health guidelines.
- Allowing essential gatherings of a limited number of people.
- Opening some outdoor spaces.
The framework describes the workplaces that would qualify as those “workplaces that can immediately meet or modify operations to meet public health guidance and occupational health and safety requirements (e.g., curbside pickup or delivery).”
Curbside pickup — for businesses that had been closed as non-essential — has been allowed since Monday. Also on Monday, Ontario reopened access to provincial parks, but campsites and facilities at all parks remain closed.