One of the most important lessons of the pandemic has been that risk is cumulative: no one factor makes you entirely vulnerable to COVID-19, but, as different factors are combined — age, immune-system strength, pre-existing conditions — they add up in ways that make the disease deadlier. And it works the other way, too: masks, hand washing, and keeping two metres away from strangers are not perfect guarantees of safety. But doing them all, consistently, can substantially reduce your risks of being infected or of suffering severely if you do become infected.
In politics, too, risk is cumulative, and the Tories have spent July making choices that have increased their risks as Ontario heads into the fall.
The first example isn’t directly related to the pandemic. Bill 184 — the latest of the government’s housing bills, titled the Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act — was introduced in the house when there were still fewer than 100 proven cases of COVID-19 in Ontario. But Bill 184 has tenant groups alarmed; they’re accusing the government of making it easier to evict renters as the moratorium on evictions comes to an end tomorrow. The government says this is false — Bill 184 contains larger penalties for bad-faith evictions than previous law did — and that it won’t result in a doomsday for renters.
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As someone who tries to take this government’s housing policies seriously, I hope it’s right. But, even before the pandemic, Ontario’s big landlords had largely begun to operate as “eviction factories,” as the Globe and Mail reported in December. And the pandemic has put vastly more tenants in financial distress, meaning that there was an elevated risk of an eviction flood even before Bill 184 became law. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the simple fact that the government had to browbeat commercial landlords into being reasonable with their tenants earlier this summer — with Bill 184, the government is implicitly expecting the residential rental system to operate more fairly and reasonably than the commercial sector has. That is, to say the least, a questionable assumption.
Other measures the government has introduced as it reopens the economy have similar risks buried in them. The decision to reopen bars and restaurants for indoor dining may end up being safe: Ontario’s reported new COVID-19 cases have stayed low, even in most regions that entered Stage 3 two weeks ago. The notable exception is Ottawa, but the outbreak there seems to be related to people holding private parties, which are a dumb and stupid idea regardless of whether we’re in Stage 2 or 3. (Don’t do it, folks!) And the government this morning announced new restrictions on bars and restaurants to further improve safety for patrons and workers, largely mirroring measures already passed by Toronto and other municipalities.
But the fact remains that, if Ontario manages to reopen bars and restaurants without planting the seeds for new outbreaks, it’s going to be one of very, very few places to have managed that. (Denmark and Norway allowed bars and restaurants to open earlier this year and have kept a lid on new infection.) Indoor dining and drinking is just an inherently risky proposition right now, as much as the government wants to support those businesses.
The same is true for the government’s return-to-school plan, announced yesterday. Matt Gurney wrote about the risks inherent in the plan, and I don’t need to repeat him, but, in fairness to the government, the safety of both bars and schools depends as much on what’s going on outside them as inside: Ontario has, thank goodness, wrestled the number of new COVID-19 cases to very low levels — below 100 new cases for two days running this week, albeit with a rebound this morning. Maybe Ontario will get lucky (assisted, perhaps, by the COVID-19 exposure-alert app that’s available to download today for Apple and Android smartphone users), and we’ll keep infections and hospitalizations at a sustainably low level until there’s a vaccine.
Maybe Premier Doug Ford will get lucky, and none of the three cases outlined above will explode in his government’s face, causing either a social or a medical crisis, or both. It would obviously be better for the province if that turned out to be the case. But risk is cumulative, and the Tories may come to regret not hedging their bets.