Don’t get your hopes up about this ‘28 day’ lockdown

ANALYSIS: Nominally, Toronto and Peel region are facing a four-week lockdown. But don’t start making holiday plans — it’s almost certain to last longer
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 24, 2020
As of November 23, Toronto and Peel region are slated to be in lockdown until December 21. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but as someone living in one of Ontario’s two current “lockdown” regions, I think it’s worth being straightforward about this: the announced 28-day lockdown is almost certain to be extended and will likely last at least until the return of school, on January 4. That means people in the province’s two largest cities really shouldn’t make plans for Christmas or New Year’s gatherings — people in lots of other places in the “Red/Control” category should probably be thinking small, too.

The argument that the lockdown will be longer than currently advertised is pretty simple and comes in two parts: First, Toronto and Peel’s COVID-19 numbers (either new cases or those actively sick on any given day) simply aren’t going to come down quickly enough to justify ending the lockdown in 28 days. Second, even if they did, ending the lockdown after 28 days would mean indoor drinking and dining reopening in a limited way on December 21 — just in time for people to make poor life choices at the peak of the holiday season, potentially reversing any gains the lockdown had made.

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The pandemic has made fools of anyone who tries to predict the future, so let’s spell these arguments out in some detail. About the only bright spot in the province’s fight against the fall wave has been in Ottawa (and, to a lesser extent, in the nearby Eastern Ontario region). As of Tuesday, Ottawa had 323 people actively sick with COVID-19, just a bit more than one-third of the 970 it had on October 9. But it’s been slow going: it took five weeks for the city to cut its level of infection by half.

If we apply that timeline to Peel region and Toronto — and there’s reason to think that Ottawa’s success will be harder to replicate here — that means that, five weeks from today, we’d be at 1,988 cases in Peel and 2,182 in Toronto. In both places, that would still mean more people actively sick with COVID-19 than we had at the peak of the spring wave, when we were in a much stricter lockdown than what’s currently in place (schools were closed, for starters). It’s difficult to say what this would mean for key indicators, such as hospital ICU-bed capacity, except that hospital cases are going to be the last indicator to fall even after the total number of cases becomes more manageable.

David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer, confirmed Monday that it would be optimistic to think the lockdown could end after 28 days.

“I would be surprised if we were down by that much, to bring it out … is it possible? It could be,” Williams offered. “We would be surprised if we’re out of this in weeks. But it’s a surprise I would like to be taken off-guard by if we did.”

Even if the numbers did, miraculously, come down briskly within four weeks and the crunch on hospital capacity began to ease, that still wouldn’t guarantee that the province would move Toronto and Peel from “lockdown” to the only slightly less restrictive “Red/Control” — because of where it would fall in the calendar. Allowing bars and restaurants to reopen for indoor dining and drinking right as the holidays really get going would be setting up those two areas for a massive rebound in new cases, which is what the province has seen repeatedly every time there’s been a major holiday of the kind that gets people travelling and seeing their extended families.

And a post-holiday rebound in cases would also have implications for the second half of the school year.

“We could see quite a big upswing in our numbers in the new year, and our major concern, of course, is that our school program, for the most part — unlike what some were forecasting —has stayed open, and it looks like we’re on track to stay open until the Christmas break,” Williams said Monday. “You’d hate to have that all of the sudden fall apart because people totally went and disregarded all caution during the Christmas-New Year’s break. I think you still want to keep that investment intact.”

Add it all up, and a six-week lockdown — lifting only as students start to return to school — looks like the kind of measure that would check a lot of boxes for the premier and cabinet: it’s the best chance of keeping a lid on a holiday-fuelled resurgence in COVID-19 numbers so that we can give the hospital sector more room to breathe and keep schools open.

It's nobody’s idea of a good time for the holidays, but it might be the least-bad option.

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