Tam muddles the message
Needless confusion over COVID rules
We Ontarians awoke Canada Day Eve to a Brave New World: “Step 2” of what the province rather awkwardly calls the “Roadmap to Reopen.” Such freedoms we now enjoy! Outdoor gatherings of 25, up from 10; indoor gatherings of five, up from zero; six people per table on a restaurant patio, up from four. Overnight summer camps, public libraries, racetracks both automotive and equine, and amusement and water parks can all open with various restrictions and capacity limits. We can even get haircuts and manicures.
We Ontarians still cannot go to the gym or eat at a restaurant indoors, and if newly minted chief public health officer Dr. Kieran Moore has anything to say about it, we won't be able to for at least another 21 days — the roadmap's stated minimum period for each of the three stages. Ontario moved to Stage 2 a few days earlier than originally planned, having met the stipulated case-number and vaccination targets.
Moore will sanction no such recklessness.
The plan in question was unveiled on May 20. It applies to nearly 15 million people, or roughly 40 per cent of the Canadian population. So it would be pretty strange, weeks later, if Moore's federal counterpart, Dr. Theresa Tam, were suddenly to issue directly contradictory advice. But that's exactly what she did last Friday, when Public Health Canada (PHAC) released guidance on what unvaccinated, partially vaccinated and fully vaccinated people can safely do.
According to PHAC'S infographic, fully vaccinated people can forego masking and social distancing — even to the point of “sharing a hug” — in small outdoor and indoor crowds. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people can also doff their masks and hug at outdoor gatherings, assuming the other attendees are fully vaccinated and “everyone is comfortable with that.”
If such a gathering is held indoors, the guidance for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people is to “consider removing your mask and being physically close to the fully vaccinated individuals if everyone is comfortable with that, AND nobody is at risk of more severe disease and outcomes.”
Got that? It gets even more complicated from there. We're 15 months into this and public health communications in this country remains utterly, resolutely shoddy.
But more to the point: When Tam unveiled the advice last Friday, indoor gatherings of any kind were legally prohibited not just in Ontario, but in Alberta and Manitoba as well. Alberta's restrictions expired entirely on Thursday (God speed, Alberta!), but Ontario's only softened: indoor gatherings are allowed but capped at five people and, near as I can tell from Section 3.1, paragraph 4 of Regulation 263/20 made under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, contingent on maintaining social distancing between anyone not in the same household. So no hugging, clearly.
Manitoba's indoor-gathering prohibition, meanwhile, remains unaltered: “No indoor private gatherings are permitted,” and whereas “five people maximum are permitted (to gather) at an indoor public place or the common areas of a multi-unit residence,” they must wear masks.
Neither Ontario's nor Manitoba's rules make any distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, which is awfully dumb, if you ask me. But those are, nevertheless, the rules, and they are unambiguously the provinces' bailiwick, not Ottawa's.
Alas, Canada's Ontario-centric media are obsessed with all things federal, never mind who's actually in charge of the matter in question. And so we got woefully misleading headlines like this, from Global News: “Fully vaccinated against COVID-19? Canada unveils new guidance on what you can, can't do.”
The average news consumer would naturally conclude from most coverage that Tam's guidance now applies across the country, when in fact it doesn't really apply anywhere. Indeed, in small print at the top of the infographic, we find the following proviso: “You still need to follow local public health advice in public settings (e.g., workplaces, public transit).”
That's not even correct. The provincial rules described above aren't just “advice.” Many are legally binding. Ontario law provides for a $100,000 fine and a year in the clink for breaking those rules. And they don't just apply “in public settings,” but in private ones, too.
It's especially ironic that Tam would suddenly find herself further along the “roadmap to reopen” than several provinces with respect to masks, social distancing and indoor gatherings, having spent most of the pandemic insisting provincial rules must never be relaxed no matter what they say or how severe they are. So the question becomes even more perplexing: Why would Tam deliberately muddle the message?
One answer would be “because reporters keep asking her to.” That's something my industry needs to get a handle on, especially with an election ostensibly on the horizon. Goodness only knows how many national strategies, programs and standards the Liberals and New Democrats will propose — health care, dental care, long-term care, day care — with details like “do the provinces even want this?” to be ironed out later. They deserve far more skepticism than they normally receive. When it comes to standards in long-term care homes and other healthcare sectors, “national” is too often mistaken as a synonym for “better.”
But if reporters asked Tam to ride a barrel over Rideau Falls, she would presumably decline. She might even explain why not. She should try that approach next time she's urged to take control of situations that really aren't within her purview.