Ontario’s reopening plan is cautious and gradual. Will it be enough?

OPINION: We tried a targeted approach in the fall, and things fell apart. Now Doug Ford has unveiled a re-reopening plan
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 08, 2021
Grey-zone restrictions will be amended, permitting limited in-store shopping for all retailers. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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It seems like a long time ago, but the last time a lockdown was lifted in Toronto, it was July 31. That’s when the city moved into “Stage 3” of reopening after the first wave.

We don’t talk about stages anymore. We use colours now. That’s just one of the reasons any direct comparison between the situations then and now is so hard to make. But it’s worth mentioning one thing, because it honestly blew my mind: on July 31, 2020, the day Toronto went to Stage 3, the city, home to 3 million residents, reported ... 20 new cases of COVID-19.

Twenty. Two-zero. That’s less than an NHL roster.

Oh, and there were 29 COVID-19 patients in Ontario’s ICU beds. That’s probably about the number of guys you’d get behind the bench when you factor in the trainers, coaches, and equipment pros.

Let’s lurch back into the present and set aside the hockey allusions, for now: Monday’s numbers, for comparison, were 421 new cases in Toronto (those numbers may be wonky, due to data-migration issues) and 335 COVID-19 patients in provincial ICUs. And those numbers are both on the downslope of the second wave, which appears to be coming under control. That’s 21 times the cases in Toronto and 11.5 times the ICU load as compared to July 31.

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Let’s be clear: this is not intended to be a direct comparison. The city and the province were both in very different places on July 31, and the experience of last summer has only limited application to our present woes. The context matters, especially because we aren’t reopening Toronto today. We won’t begin to loosen up Toronto until school reopens on February 16, and the broader economic reopening won’t begin until the week after that, on February 22.

The point of noting the numbers for July 31 and February 8 is simply to illustrate the scale of the difference. Our situation now is objectively much worse than it was when we hit Stage 3. We had room for error in July. Right now, we don’t. ICU occupancy is gradually dropping, but by a handful of patients per day. It’s going to be months before we get them back under the province’s first danger threshold of 150 COVID-19 patients in ICUs. The good news is we are getting there — the trend line is good. But it’ll be a long road back to a more sustainable footing, and if we screw up now, we do so with damn little slack in the system. The same goes for the variants: if they become a major problem, there is a real danger that they will become such a problem before we’ve gotten the hospitals cleared out.

The proposed plan Premier Doug Ford laid out Monday is cautious and gradual, which is good. Most interesting, to me, was a so-called emergency brake — if necessary, a local public-health officer and the chief medical officer of health, David Williams, can snap heavy “grey” restrictions back into place in any health unit that shows worrying case-count trends. This will presumably include specific tracking of the emerging variants that are popping up in the community in Ontario. The emergency brake will bypass the health roundtable and therefore be more nimble — and perhaps less politically problematic — than the current system. That’s good.

The question, of course, is whether it’ll be enough. Schools are reopening. The grey-zone restrictions will be amended, permitting limited in-store shopping for all retailers, not just large big-box stores. A snap-back to the amended (slightly looser) grey rules in an area with worrying case counts is ... something, I guess. But the relatively cheerful trend we’ve been seeing of late in the provincial numbers — particularly in Toronto and Peel region — is occurring with schools closed, small retailers limited to curbside-shopping only, and a stay-at-home order in place. You can’t snap all those things back into place as easily.

Ontario’s experience with COVID-19 tells us two important, related things: when you go all out and close the schools and tell everyone to stay home and limit dining and shopping, you can fairly rapidly bring case counts and hospital demand down. But we’ve also learned that when you don’t do these things, incrementally ratcheting up other restrictions doesn’t work. We tried a smarter, targeted approach in the fall, and things fell apart, forcing us to put the hammer down again.

We are months away from the return of the warm weather, and Lord only knows how long from having any measurable portion of the population vaccinated. A third wave is possible if we screw this up again. The plan we have now is probably improved from what it was before. But how much? Enough? We’ll find out.

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