Ontario is getting it right, and to be able to say that is like being able to exhale. It has taken more than a year, through deep barrels of suffering, and a hospital system that very nearly broke. The toll remains uncounted, and will be felt for years.

Opinion

A stroll up the hill at Riverdale Park West earlier this month. Ontario’s cautious reopening plans won praise from many scientists for being clear and logical.

STEVE RUSSELL - TORONTO STAR

A stroll up the hill at Riverdale Park West earlier this month. Ontario’s cautious reopening plans won praise from many scientists for being clear and logical.

Ontario is getting it right, and to be able to say that is like being able to exhale. It has taken more than a year, through deep barrels of suffering, and a hospital system that very nearly broke. The toll remains uncounted, and will be felt for years.

But on Thursday the Ontario government unveiled its third-wave reopening plan, and miracle of miracles, they finally listened to the right scientists. It featured measurable thresholds, appropriate caution, a recognition of the fragility of the moment. It was like looking at someone you know and finding out they can fly.

“This is very reasonable policy,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto and Toronto General Hospital, and a member of the province’s vaccine task force. “This is very, very likely to work.”

“It’s an absolutely good step,” said Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director of the province’s independent volunteer science table. “It’s a simple framework, clear messaging, clearly outlined steps, and a clear willingness not to get ahead of ourselves. That’s important.”

“I think we have a pretty viable position compared to a lot of places around the world because we have cases dropping, we have low hesitancy, we’re getting vaccines out reasonably well, and we have a government that almost looks like they know what they’re doing,” says Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai-University Health Network, also a member of the science table. “They’re almost unrecognizable, to be honest with you. Could you argue with it? You could niggle on some of the stuff.

“But they’re taking their time, they’re cautiously reopening. I anticipate that this will lead to a very good July and August.”

It feels like walking out into the sun, and in some cases it is literally that. More than a month after restricting outdoor activities — and indeed, coming close to criminalizing them, before police pushed back, if not completely — golf and tennis and basketball and pickleball and skateboarding is back starting Saturday, though the idea of distance outside and masking if you can’t remains essential. Banning outdoor activities, where there is a 20-fold lower chance of transmission, was always absurd.

As for the rest, it is a road map that actually listens to the science table. Premier Doug Ford emphasized the precariousness of the hospital system, where over 700 COVID-19 patients remain in the ICU, mostly on ventilators, in a system where 150 used to be a problem. He rejected the right-wing fantasy of trying to be like Florida, which besides the difference in climate has suffered more losses than here. Maybe it was how close Ontario came to disaster, or how angry people were after the last round of restrictions, or, perhaps most likely, the government’s sagging poll numbers.

It doesn’t matter. They listened.

So let’s get to the end. Stage 1 will involve a loosening of outdoor gatherings and camping and day camps and outdoor pools, along with sharply limited retail, and will require a 60 per cent one-dose vaccination rate. Ontario is more or less there now, but critically, the plan involves undisclosed but significant thresholds regarding case rates and ICU capacity. When Minister of Health Christine Elliott said it is expected to begin June 14, matching what the science table had presented earlier in the day, you knew they were serious. Thank goodness.

Then it’s at least 21 days until Stage 2 and more outdoor expansion, patios included, then another 21 days at least until Stage 3, which involves indoor spaces. Assuming June 14 as a start date, Stage 2 would begin around July 5, which is well after the point where every Ontarian will have a chance at a first dose. Stage 3 would start about July 26. Both stages requires higher vaccination rates, and the details after that will be important. A vaccine-evading variant could throw us and everyone else sideways, and is hopefully the only major wild card left.

“If there’s any variant of concern that increases transmission, or maybe a vaccine-escaping mutation, we want cases to be as low as they can possibly be, and we don’t want a lot of patients in the ICU,” said Dr. Beate Sander, a scientist and modeller at University Health Network, a Canadian Research Chair in the economics of infectious diseases, and a member of the science table. “Because we want to be able to control that and mitigate it with ... public health measures that work in that case.”

Schools remain an unanswered question: Dr. Steini Brown, the co-chair of the science table, said models showed schools might produce a six to 11 per cent boost in daily case rates, and Ford repeated that number, seeming concerned. Brown also repeated the idea that schools should be last to close and first to open, and if we are seeing huge case declines and soaring vaccinations, in-person school becomes a value judgment, for parents and especially kids.

“I think it all makes perfect sense. The only thing is the schools: if we do school openings that means we need to wait three weeks (after the opening) for the patio openings, three to four weeks,” said Juni. “But then we are so much further,” in terms of vaccination and hospital capacity, and case reduction. “What I like most is the willingness to wait between each step.”

Assuming hospital capacity thresholds remain robust, and we keep an eye on B.1.617.2, or the Indian variant, and the government hews to the caution of this plan, the province could emerge this summer, blinking and disoriented, into what looks like the rest of our lives. For a year Ontario decided to expose the vulnerable and use ineffective restrictions and only do the right thing when smoke started to come out of the hospitals. It has been worse than it should have been.

But they listened, mostly, finally. Never forget: this government owns almost everything after the first wave. This didn’t have to be this cruel, this stupid, this inequitable, this hard. Paid sick leave and essential workplaces could still be better taken care of.

But it’s never too late to do the right thing.

“This will work out,” said Juni. “I am pretty sure. I would bet anything that this will work out.”

Finally. Let’s go.

Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur