Should smaller towns be able to reopen before Toronto?

ANALYSIS: Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly said that Ontario will reopen as a province — not region by region. But new research suggests there could be benefits to taking a local approach 
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 20, 2020
The premier has stated that the government is not currently considering any kind of regional approach to reopening the economy. (iStock.com/brightstars)

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The Ontario government has been reasonably consistent about one part of its recovery plan for COVID-19: the province will reopen to public life in stages, not in bits and pieces, by region. There’s a compelling reason for this, as Premier Doug Ford has said repeatedly when asked about the possibility of reopening some parts of the province before the cities in the GTA, where the pandemic is most pronounced.

“If they loosen up restrictions in one area, guess where all the people from Toronto and the GTA are going, if they want to go have dinner?” the premier said earlier this month. “They're all going flock to Kingston, and I don't think that'd be very fair for that jurisdiction to have everyone coming in in one shot like that.” 

Ontario’s approach contrasts with the one taken by Quebec, where public-health restrictions have been maintained around Montreal longer than in the rest of the province.

For some parts of Ontario, this is profoundly unfair: areas with only a handful of cases are going to be under substantial public-health restrictions to help control an outbreak centred in Toronto. (The city of Kingston has asked for the province to consider a regional reopening plan expressly on these grounds.) But new modelling from a team of researchers at the universities of Guelph and Waterloo suggests that it might also not be a terribly effective way of preventing the disease from returning to areas where it’s dying out after a small local outbreak.

“The question is, how much can travel cause re-importation of the infection, and how much of a problem is that?” asks Chris Bauch, professor and research chair at Waterloo’s Department of Mathematics.

Bauch and his collaborators, postdoctoral researcher Vadim Karatayev and professor Madhur Anand of the University of Guelph, modelled the impacts of public-health measures across 49 regions corresponding to major population centres in Ontario — in the model, they’re all labelled “counties.” The researchers then looked at the different outcomes from provincewide lockdowns used to control the spread of the disease versus more locally specific lockdowns — letting Sudbury and London stay open, for example, even if Toronto and Ottawa need to be locked down again.

The results are striking: cases of COVID-19 do go up when local reopenings are allowed, but only by about 1 per cent, relative to the total lockdown scenario.

“We found that, because the epidemiology is quite different across the province, if an area that’s less affected by the virus can maintain physical distancing and testing,” Bauch says, “they can lift school and workplace closures with only a minimal rise in cases.”

Bauch is quick to add that reopening workplaces and schools wouldn’t mean a return to a pre-pandemic normal: the model’s results are built, in part, on the assumption that people would continue to adhere to many of the physical-distancing rules that have become part of life since COVID-19 arrived in Ontario.

Another caveat to the models’ results: reopenings do need to be coordinated between counties. It  would be the province’s role to ensure that local public-health bodies reopened the economy in a coordinated way, using the same standards to determine when a local outbreak had been sufficiently controlled to resume business.

But reopening parts of the province where the disease hasn’t been as prevalent would still leave the large cities — Ottawa and, especially, Toronto — with much more prolonged shutdowns relative to the rest of the province: the virus is simply too common in large, dense populations for the lockdowns to be lifted more than marginally.

For now, the work from Bauch and his collaborators remains somewhat academic: as the premier has said repeatedly, the government is not currently considering any kind of regional approach to reopening the economy. The prospect of new waves of infection, however, means that the government could be asked to reconsider if it becomes necessary to revert to stricter public-health controls in the future.

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