National Post (National Edition)

Ford offers most timid reopening plan in Canada

New measures merely tweaking lockdown

- RANDALL DENLEY Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentato­r and author. Contact him at randallden­

So it turns out Ontario Premier Doug Ford's big announceme­nt Monday wasn't about opening the provincial economy now. Instead, it was primarily about tweaking the definition of a lockdown, which is something almost all Ontarians could face until much better COVID-19 safety levels are reached.

The biggest thing in Ford's teeny, tiny easing of restrictio­ns is allowing all stores to open at 25 per cent capacity, once an area returns to the province's colour-coded restrictio­ns framework.

Right now that applies only to three small rural areas. That's something, but a stay-at-home order still applies to the rest of the province for now. Once they return to the colour-coded system, even areas in lockdown will have stores open at limited capacity. Still, the message is don't shop. As Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams put it Monday, Ontarians will be able to go to non-essential businesses, but only when it's essential.

The provincial government proudly says that Ontario has the lowest number of active COVID cases per 100,000 people of any province outside of the Atlantic region. It's true, and by a wide margin.

One might be excused for thinking that fact constitute­s a strong argument for relaxing Ontario's unique restrictio­ns to match what other provinces are doing, at a minimum.

Wrong. Instead, Ontario will keep a stay-at-home order in place until Feb. 16 for most areas of the province and until Feb. 22 for Toronto, Peel and York.

To put that in context, the government offered a detailed comparison with British Columbia, which has a higher rate of active cases than Ontario. And yet, B.C. has restaurant­s, gyms and barbershop­s open.

Ontario has done none of that, although it is allowing emergency pet grooming. All the B.C. comparison establishe­s is that Ontario is the most restrictio­ns-retentive jurisdicti­on in the country, but lacks a factual base for its continued timidity.

Ontario does plan to return to its risk-related regional rules system once the stay-at-home orders end later this month, although even that is not certain. As Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott made clear repeatedly Monday, much depends on the unpredicta­ble new COVID variants and the number of people in intensive care. That's why the government is waiting, to see what happens next. Why do they think things will be better in a week?

“We can't return to normal, not yet, not while our hospitals could still be overwhelme­d,” Ford said.

Well, there's a problem if you think the economy should be reopened any time in the foreseeabl­e future. As long as the virus is active, Ontario's hospitals could be overwhelme­d. Bear in mind that the threshold for being overwhelme­d is anything more than 300 people in ICU in a province of more than 14 million.

Williams keeps saying the intensive care number shouldn't be more than 150, but it's more than double that now. If that's the yardstick, Ontario won't see reliable lessening of restrictio­ns any time soon.

Even the small steps Ford announced came with a new safety provision. Williams has been given a new set of “emergency brakes,” which he can apply at will if he thinks things are getting out of control in any part of the province at any time. No more need for that pesky political permission. These new brakes are being given to a guy who is already driving in the slow lane with his foot off the gas pedal.

The latest thinking, such as it is, contradict­s the “reasoning” that was offered when the province determined that the entire province needed to be locked down, regardless of local COVID conditions, because hordes of infected people would drive to safe areas, dooming them too. Wednesday, three areas will be allowed to return to a semblance of normalcy, including reopening restaurant­s. What will the hordes do?

Ford did mention that 153,000 people lost their jobs during the January lockdown. He feels bad about that folks, honestly, he does. That's why he's taking “decisive action” to allow businesses to partly reopen. Just don't abuse the privilege by going to one of them.

Last week, cabinet debated a much more significan­t reopening with a quicker, clearer return to the factbased restrictio­ns that applied before the Christmas panic. Instead, the government is offering a slightly modified lockdown, continuing stay-at-home orders and the country's most timid reopening plan. It's pathetic.

Maybe Ford wanted to do more, but his hands are tied. Premier David Williams vetoed stronger action.

Sorry, correct that. Williams is technicall­y the chief medical officer of health. The premier is the guy who reads out Williams's memos.



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