Dear Premier Ford: Please, please don’t reopen early

OPINION: New cases are down. More and more Ontarians are vaccinated. But the numbers aren’t where we need them to be right now
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 18, 2021
Premier Doug Ford (right) and Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams at a briefing at Queen’s Park on May 29, 2020. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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I truly didn’t think I’d have occasion to write these words before he left his current position as chief medical officer of health for the province of Ontario but: thank God for David Williams. When, on Thursday, Premier Doug Ford tried to kindle the province’s embers of hope and good news into a roaring bonfire of exuberance, the doctor showed up to his 3 p.m. news conference with a firehose of caution to extinguish any crazy ideas about pushing the province into a faster transition into the next stage of reopening.

Earlier on Thursday, Ford had told reporters that he was pushing hard to accelerate the province’s reopening, as Ontarians line up to get vaccines in arms by the hundreds of thousands every day.

“I’m pushing him; I think everyone’s pushing him,” Ford said of his advocacy to get Williams’s sign-off on an accelerated reopening. “Discussions are going on right now, folks. I just can’t wait to move forward.” 

“We’re not even one week through Step 1,” Williams said later in the day, in a tone that suggested he might well be speaking to an audience of one. Lest anyone forget the stakes, he added: “We do not want a fourth wave — that’s our first priority. We continue to be cautious. The other thing we don’t want to do is open and then close again.”

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I sincerely sympathize with businesses that have been closed, workers who’ve been disemployed, and even just citizens who want to do the things they would normally be allowed to do. You don’t need an excuse to want a haircut or a pedicure — we are all owed our liberties back, as soon as it’s safe enough.

It's the “as soon as it’s safe enough” thing that we’re getting stuck on right now.

Yes, the number of new cases is down tremendously, and vaccination numbers are headed skyward like a homesick meteor. As someone who has lived with those numbers every day for more than a year now, I can tell you the good news backwards and forwards with my eyes closed.

And as of Friday morning, Ontario has indeed hit some of the benchmarks for moving to Step 2: 75 per cent of adults have had their first vaccine, and more than 20 per cent have had their second. The catch is that those benchmarks always came with an explicit caveat: the province also wanted to see improving public-health indicators, including — and perhaps especially — substantially reduced numbers of patients in the province’s intensive-care units.

But the number of people in Ontario’s ICUs is still nearly as high today as it was at the peak of the second wave, and the fact that it’s down so substantially from the third wave isn’t an indicator of success but a record of past failure: we’ve fallen so far because we ran the hospital system very nearly to collapse, and we still haven’t entirely recovered from that.

The Delta variant is both real and concerning and also not necessarily something to panic about: it’s causing outbreaks around the province, but the good news is vaccines work, and one dose is still extremely effective at keeping people alive and out of the hospital (although two doses is better). The more time we take to get as many people as possible vaccinated before moving to the next part of reopening, the better.

Delta has already derailed the United Kingdom’s reopening plan; there’s nothing magical about Ontario that means that couldn’t happen here. Moreover, we are seeing outbreaks in places like Waterloo despite high levels of vaccination, and there’s no reason to believe that couldn’t happen elsewhere in Ontario.

But, to be clear, nobody is yet talking about delaying the next step of reopening past the timeline that Ford himself has already committed to: a 21-day interval after entering Step 1, which would mean entering Step 2 on July 2.

(When the government announced its reopening plan, my assessment was as conditional as the plan itself: “If the Tories can stick to it, the plan as presented Thursday is good enough, and it might actually even be good.” The “if” in that sentence wasn’t put there by accident, as this government has had a hard time sticking to its good ideas.)

Williams even suggested he might be willing to entertain the idea of a very modest acceleration of reopening so that Ontario could enter Step 2 on or a bit before Canada Day, and that could be fine: there’s a big difference between moving up reopening a day or two and shifting it seven to 10 days earlier. It was harmless and beneficial to start the reopening process on Friday, June 11 (rather than the previously announced Monday, June 14) so that people could enjoy the weekend; if the trajectory of our pandemic continues in the right direction, it’s worth considering letting people enjoy a small measure of additional fun for the summer holidays.

That might end up being the last decision Williams makes, because by the time the province has to decide whether and how to move from Step 2 to Step 3, Kingston’s Kieran Moore will have taken over and be advising the premier. Nevertheless, it’s notable that Williams didn’t shoot down the idea of an accelerated transition in that scenario, saying that he’s “always open to surprises” (one assumes he meant pleasant ones).

One final point: this government said that, given the presence of the Delta variant, we couldn’t risk reopening schools, because doing so carried the risk of increasing transmission and infection. That decision imposed real costs on families and on schoolchildren, and Ford made it despite substantial support for school reopening among pediatric specialists and the advice of the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which indicated that increased spread could have been managed. Parents were patient as the government strung them along — they’ve been at least as patient as the businesses that have remained closed — and, while most of us have made peace with the decision, it doesn’t make the path here any more pleasant.

Opting to accelerate to Step 2, when this premier and his cabinet weren’t willing to let children go back to school for even a short interval, would prove that the premier’s critics had been right all along: the public-school year was sacrificed on the altar of private business profits, and our children’s mental health was deemed an appropriate price to pay so that Costco could have more people inside its stores.

We can talk about accelerating the transition to Step 3 in July, if Ontario’s numbers continue to improve, our vaccinations are even more robust, and our ICU numbers are actually “good” and not merely “less bad.” But Williams is correct when he says the numbers aren’t where we need them to be right now. Even if they were, I’m not sure I could swallow the contempt an earlier reopening would show Ontario’s students, parents, and anyone else who tries to take the government seriously.

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Ontario's reopening process began on May 11; in fact, it began on June 11. TVO.org regrets the error. 

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