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This article was published 20/5/2021 (447 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s the Ontario open.
Schools remain closed to in-person learning, but golfers and tennis players can begin hitting balls Saturday after Premier Doug Ford unveiled the province’s plan for reopening the economy as COVID-19 rates decline and a stay-at-home order expires June 2.
Ford cautioned that other outdoor activities like drinking and dining on restaurant patios and opening non-essential stores to customers will have to wait until mid-June because the province wants to see higher vaccination rates.
Haircuts, amusement parks, indoor dining and casinos will take even longer, certainly into July and perhaps into August.
“It’s going to be a few weeks,” Ford acknowledged Thursday.
“I just wish ... I could give you an exact date. I just can’t — it depends.”
That’s because the government has dropped its colour-coded framework of regional restrictions in favour of a three-phase, province-wide plan that sets a series of vaccination targets for both first and second shots, providing an incentive for Ontarians to get jabs as soon as possible.
“There might be some people who want to move faster but we just can’t take that risk right now,” Ford added, warning that more contagious variants of COVID-19 could easily take off again.
“We can’t risk undoing the progress that has been made.”
Factors in reopening also include daily case levels, COVID-19 reproduction rates, capacity of public health units to trace new infections, and declining case and hospitalization levels, particularly in hospital intensive care units that remain near capacity.
All must be trending in the right direction at levels to satisfy the government and its health officials.
For a premier and a Progressive Conservative government repeatedly accused of reopening too quickly after the second wave last winter — setting the stage for a more punishing third wave — there was praise from health experts who applauded the plan’s simplicity and clarity.
“This is really excellent,” said Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the volunteer science table advising Ford and his officials.
“They’ve considered the way this is working a little more carefully,” agreed Wilfrid Laurier University epidemiologist Todd Coleman.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said the tough restrictions millions have faced since last November will continue into summer because of poor decision-making.
“Doug Ford has messed up lockdowns and reopenings again and again, and Ontarians have suffered a longer, deeper, more devastating lockdown as a result. His choices are the reason we’re still going to live with some level of lockdown for weeks to come.”
After golf courses, tennis and basketball courts, driving ranges, soccer fields, skate parks and other outdoor amenities open for the Victoria Day long weekend with physical distancing — and people allowed to gather outside in groups no bigger than five — the first target for the easing of more restrictions is 60 per cent of adults with a first vaccination.
With that rate currently 58 per cent, the threshold will be reached within days.
However, step one of the reopening won’t begin until the week of June 14 in line with a science table recommendation that most public health measures remain in place until then to get case levels lower and allow more time for vaccinations to work.
That phase also includes outdoor gatherings of up to 10, outdoor dining of four people per table at restaurant patios, reopening of non-essential retailers such as book and hardware stores to 15 per cent customer capacity, day camps, campsites, provincial parks, and outdoor pools.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said there will be at least 21 days between each phase to assess the impact.
That means step two could begin as early as the first week of July with personal care services like barber shops, hair and nail salons — with masks — larger gatherings of 25 outdoors and five people indoors, outdoor amusement and water parks, boat tours, sports leagues, and fairs and outdoor concerts.
But that will depend on reaching a level of 70 per cent of first doses, which should easily be surpassed by then, and 20 per cent or about 2.4 million adults fully vaccinated, which might be a stretch given just under 500,000 have had two doses so far, Coleman said.
“That’s the question, especially with the four-month wait for second doses,” the epidemiologist added.
Ford conceded the pace will have to pick up, with larger shipments of vaccine expected in July.
There would be another wait of at least 21 days for more freedoms under step three, providing 70 to 80 per cent of adults have been given first shots and 25 per cent — or about 3 million people — are fully vaccinated.
This is where indoor activities can resume, with the government citing “larger” gatherings, in-restaurant dining, sports, casinos and attractions. Capacity limits have yet to be determined.
While Green Leader Mike Schreiner applauded the clarity in the plan, he said with continued restrictions “supports for small businesses, safer schools, and safer workplaces were sadly missing.”
“We need more than a three-step plan to address the challenges Ontarians continue to face,” added Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.
The reopening blueprint was revealed after the premier’s science table of advisers recommended keeping strong public health measures in place until mid-June to “help ensure a good summer.”
The stay-at-home order and increasing vaccination levels — almost 60 per cent of adults — have improved control of the pandemic with cases and positivity rates declining, science table co-chair Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told a briefing earlier Thursday.
“The public health measures, however taxing and frustrating, have helped stop the spread,” he said. “The direction of the pandemic has turned and if we’re careful and cautious, we can maintain this momentum.”
As the Star reported Thursday, the government is poised to begin giving second doses of the AstraZeneca and related Covishield vaccines soon.
Brown warned easing public health measures June 2 could lead to an increase in cases and about 1,000 daily by the end of June, while waiting until mid-June could get them down to 500 by the end of that month.
“The more we can vaccinate and keep spread down ... the faster we will see the end to the pandemic,” Brown said. “The outlook is cautiously optimistic but this is not the time to let down our guard ... we need to be careful and cautious to avoid a fourth wave.”
Ontario reported 27 more deaths Thursday, bringing the toll to 8,552 and 2,400 new infections, moving the closely watched seven-day moving average of new cases at 2,131.
That’s down substantially from 3,369 two weeks ago, but still off chief medical officer Dr. David Williams’s goal of “well below 1,000” per day.
While hospital and intensive care unit numbers have also been declining, ICUs still have 721 patients with COVID-19, including 39 more critically ill people admitted in the previous 24 hours. Ontario reached a record of 900 intensive care patients just a couple of weeks ago and the units remain swamped.
Those ICU numbers could drop to 500 by the end of June, Brown said.
Just over 7.6 million Ontarians have been given a first COVID-19 shot, with almost 474,000 fully vaccinated from two doses.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie