Reopening Ontario isn’t just on Doug Ford — it’s down to us

OPINION: The Tories have actually come up with a decent reopening plan. It’s up to all of us to make it happen
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 21, 2021
Stage 1 of Ontario’s reopening will begin when 60 per cent of the population over 18 has had at least one dose. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

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If we’re honest — if we can be honest, in May 2021, after more than a year of all this — the reality is that, while lots of individual efforts have helped at the margins in the pandemic, the course of events in Ontario hasn’t been determined all that much by personal actions. The failures have been policy-related and political much more than they’ve been personal. 

A handful of high-profile house parties were undoubtedly the result of poor life choices, but the province’s long-term-care system wasn’t devastated by the first and second waves because of people’s bad choices, and essential workers weren’t left to fend for themselves in the Amazon warehouses of Peel Region because too many people congregated in parks or malls.

People have largely done what they’ve been asked to do and endured what they’ve been required to. And, with the obvious and notorious exception of the regular anti-mask/anti-vax/pro-gasping-death marches, the Ontario public have been better than soldiers — they’ve been citizens about it. They’ve obeyed necessary dictates but given the government well-deserved hell for the stupid stuff, like the nonsensical closure of outdoor amenities, which comes to a close on Saturday, several weeks after it should have.

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Now, finally, there’s one thing, one final thing, that individuals can do to hurry us out of the pandemic, and it’s to get their vaccine shots as soon as they’re able. The majority of Ontario’s adults, as I write this, already have, and it’s paying dividends in falling case counts and a hospital system where doctors and nurses can’t properly exhale yet but can at least think about exhaling some day soon. But we need more — ideally, everyone who’s currently eligible needs to get a needle in their arm.

So it’s good news that the government has made vaccinations the single most important indicator for moving Ontario into the second and third stages of expanded commercial and recreational options in its reopening plan. The even better news is that, for once, the premier and his cabinet seem to have abandoned any notions about negotiating with the virus: the plan unveiled Thursday is straightforward and hews closely to the science table’s advice, which was made public only hours before.

The science table says public-health measures need to stay in place until mid-June? The new framework won’t start really reopening things until mid-June. The science table says outdoor activities should be reopened for safe use? They’re reopening with rules around mask-wearing and physical distancing. It’s a far cry from what we saw earlier this year, when scientific warnings about the risks of reopening after the second wave were ignored.

Indeed, it might fairly be called too cautious: there is no plan yet to reopen schools. The premier says that’s in part because it’s predicted that doing so would result in a 6 to 11 per cent increase in new cases — the University of Toronto’s Adalsteinn Brown, though, called that increase a potentially manageable one, given the other winds blowing in our favour right now. The Canadian Paediatric Society and other children’s health experts disagree with the Doug Ford government and are begging the province to reopen schools immediately in the interest of children’s mental and physical health.

There will be many words and pixels spilled over the issue of whether we should reopen schools again for the final five weeks of the school year; my own opinions change daily and sometimes hourly. But the simple fact of having a cautious plan — one with numerous options for the government to extend deadlines if reasonably clear public-health criteria aren’t met — might be the most hopeful sign we’ve had in months.

It's tempting to wonder whether this is the product of events, a genuine conversion on Ford’s part, or sheer political exhaustion. It could be events: we’re simply at a different part of the pandemic now, where pegging our progress to the rate of vaccinations makes sense as the key public-policy goal. It could be conversion: Ford watched political observers very nearly finish writing the obituary for his career only weeks ago, and that kind of near-death experience might finally have hammered into his head (and the heads of more recalcitrant ministers) that it doesn’t matter what your buddy the bar owner says — the virus doesn’t care.

Or, because it’s politics, it could be cynical: the Tories may not care one whit more for science or their scientific advisers today than they did in February or March. They might just be exhausted from all the political fire they’ve taken in the recent months and decided that it’s to their own partisan advantage to be seen adhering to the public recommendations of people whose names are accompanied by “MD” and “PhD.”

Whatever. It wouldn’t be the first time someone in government found their way to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and it wouldn’t be the last. If the Tories can stick to it, the plan as presented Thursday is good enough, and it might actually even be good. But the execution of it is now in our own hands as much as it’s in Ford’s: the government needs to keep getting vaccines out to people, more and faster and more easily, and people need to keep taking their first shots. When the second ones come, we need to get those too.

Not because the premier says so, not because it makes us look better than the Americans, and not even because it’s literally the only way any of this ends. But because, for the first time since we got to choose the colour patterns on our face masks, something about this entire global pandemic is actually in our control. All we have to do is take it.

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