Who’s in charge in Ontario, and what the hell is going on?

OPINION: What’s happened with patios and hair salons in the third wave suggests that the province doesn’t have the first clue what it’s doing
By Matt Gurney - Published on Apr 12, 2021
In March, the province said that barbershops and salons would be permitted to reopen on April 12. (Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire)



I have been living under some form of “lockdown” for 140 days. I put that in quotes for a few reasons. One is that the precise terminology keeps changing, at least as far as the government is concerned. Another is that this isn’t really a lockdown, which is why my kids have been going to school, and I’ve been able to do fairly routine shopping trips during this time. Citizens of Australia, for instance, would probably laugh to hear this called a lockdown. But, in any case, since November 23, 2020, Toronto has been under some kind of restriction that has significantly altered how I and 3 million of my buddies have been able to go about our daily lives.

And today was the day we were supposed to get haircuts back.

This will not be a column about haircuts or barbering; I’ve already written one of those, actually, and I noted that my own need for hair care is, alas, minimal. But as I look back at the last year-plus of living in a global pandemic, the teasing of haircuts and salons probably ranks only alongside the complete shafting of patio owners as the most absurd moment. And in its own way, perhaps one of the most worrying.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

Our journalism depends on you.

You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t—to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we can’t do this without you.

There’s plenty of other stuff to worry about, to state the blindingly obvious. Ontario’s ICUs are getting awfully damned full, and the impact of the latest stay-at-home order probably won’t even begin to bring down daily case growth until next week at the earliest. We’re in for a rough April and May. But the haircuts-and-patio story is still a small but telling hint that seemingly no one was paying attention at the highest levels as we plodded confidently and serenely into this disaster.

Some context, for those who may not have picked up on the absurdity. On March 19, which seems like a long time ago but really wasn’t, the provincial government said that restaurants could begin serving customers on outdoor patios. I supported this; I still support letting patios stay open, under appropriate precautions (and that includes for staff in the food-prep areas, not just for the customers outside). But it was still a notable decision because Ontario was already obviously heading in the wrong direction. COVID-19-related ICU occupancy had flatlined after some improvement after the second wave. Cases were starting to swing up sharply again. A third wave wasn’t just imminent — it had clearly arrived, and smart people were saying so publicly. The decision to open up patios had to be seen as a one made in the specific context of an informed, intelligent judgment call even in the face of an arriving third wave.

Haircuts and other personal services were much the same. A week after the patios were allowed to open, on March 26, the province said that barbershops and salons could open on April 12. That’s today, for those keeping count at home. When that announcement was made, case growth had continued steadily. And the plateauing of COVID-19-related ICU occupancy was no longer a plateau. It was rising — the numbers were measurably moving in the wrong direction.

I want to be explicitly clear about something: even against a backdrop of rising case counts and ICU occupancy, it is entirely possible to argue that patios and barbershops should be allowed to open, with appropriate restrictions. It’s also possible to argue the opposite! What is required is that the government carefully review the available evidence and make a decision it can stick with, because it’s confident it’s made the right decision. If that means patios stay open with limits or that you can get your haircut, also with restrictions, okay, fine. If it means you can’t open patios or salons, well, less great, but understood.

But that’s not what happened. Ontario took every position almost simultaneously. It allowed patios to open, and restaurateurs went out and spent big money to load up freezers and tap new beer kegs, and then Ontario closed them again on April 3, two weeks after they’d opened. Haircuts and nail care were teased for about a week before that rug was ripped out from under us. And there was absolutely nothing that could be cited as an explanation for the closure and non-opening that hadn’t also been true when they’d been opened or teased!

This is cruel, and costly, for the business owners and employees affected. But it’s also a very obvious and public signal that, as the third wave arrived, our provincial government did not seem to have the first clue what it was doing. It was, yet again, apparently reacting to each development as it happened, with no plan and damn little evidence of much forethought. If patios were safe to open on March 19, they’re safe to be open now. If the government thought that salons and barbershops were going to be safe to open in the middle of a third wave, why aren’t they open now, as the third wave continues?

I’m blessed with a lovely backyard patio (and plenty of cold beer in the fridge) and cursed with no urgent need to see a barber. I’ll bear this latest insanity with increasingly exasperated eyerolls and no worse. But the people of Ontario should take note. There is something very wrong with our provincial leadership — either the elected leadership, the appointed public-health leaders, or both. After the past few weeks of wildly fluctuating decisions and public statements, it’s difficult not to wonder whether the people in charge have any idea what the hell they’re doing.

Related tags:
Thinking of your experience with tvo.org, how likely are you to recommend tvo.org to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely

Most recent in Opinion