Welcome to Step 3, Ontario. So what’s the new normal?

OPINION: This weekend will feel a lot more like pre-pandemic times. But for the next while, we’re going to have to adjust our expectations — and anxieties
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 16, 2021
Ontario moved to Step 3 of reopening, which includes indoor dining, on July 16. (Rachel Verbin/CP)



As you read this, you might be sitting inside a restaurant. Or maybe in a movie theatre, waiting for the film to start. Perhaps you’re cooling off after a workout at the gym. Step 3 is here. The reopening continues apace.

Ahead of the pace, actually. Ontario moved to Step 3 five days earlier than planned. It did so with the support of the new chief medical officer of health, Kieran Moore, who cited high vaccination rates and low daily case counts when he approved the change last week. If they’d stuck with the original plan, the reopening would have come next Wednesday, July 21. This way, we’re having a weekend that will feel a lot more like normal than we’re used to. Frankly, the idea of dining inside a restaurant seems almost like science fiction. I can still tell you the last meal I had in a restaurant — it was at the Orlando airport, just as the bottom was falling out of everything last year. I was mindful at the time that it was probably going to be a while before I’d dine in a restaurant again. But even with my fairly high level of concern at that time, waiting 16 months (at least!) before parking my butt in a booth would have seemed unbelievable. Yet here we are.

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It’s a good feeling, but not unreservedly so. I’m on record as being wary of an accelerated reopening. I grant that I feel better about accelerating this step forward than I would have felt about the last one. The move from Step 1 to Step 2, with minimal changes to what’s permitted indoors (or not permitted, more to the point), did not pose a major danger of a case spike. That’s a greater risk this time. Still, the intervening 16 days have brought time for more vaccination, and there hasn’t been a bounce in cases with the limited opening we’ve seen thus far. Am I entirely zen? No. But I’m not too nervous. We have to open eventually. We might as well get on with it. 

The challenge now will be staying open. The move to Step 3 isn’t a full reopening. There are still capacity restrictions in place for many indoor venues — if you did see a movie today, there’d have been a lot of empty seats around you. Ditto if you enjoyed a sandwich at the local diner. The only way we’ll start to get something more like life as it was before March 2020 is by holding the line after Step 3 and — some time in the future — taking the next step (whatever and whenever it ends up being).

I was deliberately vague in that last paragraph — we’ll have to hold “the line,” but which line? In a highly vaccinated population, a daily case count probably isn’t a useful metric anymore. As ever, we can rely on hospitalization rates and intensive-care-unit capacity as the more meaningful metrics for us once vaccination rates are high. That has always been the goal, after all — the thing that pushed Ontario into repeated lockdowns was concern about overwhelming the hospitals, leaving them unable to provide care for everyone, not just COVID-19 victims. It would be wonderful to have zero active cases in the province, but, realistically, though I hate to be defeatist, the horses are not only out of that barn — the barn burned down. We’ll have to live with COVID-19 now. It didn’t have to be this way, but, to throw another colourful metaphor at you, that ship sailed (and sank) a long time ago. (I’ll stop now.) 

Adjusting to the new normal of continued COVID-19 spread in a vaccinated population is going to require careful monitoring of our health-care resources, and this is something we can be confident will happen. Ideally, we would also sustain widespread testing and contact tracing, but those are things we’ve never really figured out, for whatever reason, and likely won’t bother with now, with cases and positivity so low.

And it’s going certainly to involve an adjustment in our own expectations. We’re going to have to consciously get used to understanding that cases aren’t going to translate into illnesses and deaths the way they did before. Shifting away from daily announcements of case counts, as some provinces already have, would probably be a good idea. A very low COVID-19 burden probably doesn’t warrant a daily count, and, frankly, doing away with it might help us cut the mental link between cases and eventual serious illnesses. 

In the meantime, we should slowly resume life as normal, while keeping a wary eye on jurisdictions around the world that are further ahead of us in the post-vaccination curve. For now, that means the United Kingdom, which is already dealing with widespread transmission of the Delta variant. Hospitalizations are going up there. Thus far, officials seem confident that the integrity of the overall health-care system isn’t threatened. That may change. And our own health-care system is vulnerable due to its small size and chronic overcrowding.

There is, as you can see above, a lot to keep track of. But I remain convinced that our own anxieties and expectations will require as much management as COVID-19 itself. It will be a challenge to balance a return to normal with the continued vigilance that will still be required. But this is, if nothing else, a more pleasant challenge to juggle than the ones we’ve had of late. For the time being at least, while keeping a wary eye abroad, we can dine indoors, get a haircut with relative ease, or enjoy a movie in a theatre. And, God willing, if the reports Friday are true, those of us in the Toronto area may soon be able to check out a Jays game at the Dome. 

That’s right. The Dome.

So enjoy yourself, Ontarians. You’ve earned it. Be safe, be smart, and tip well.

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