Tuesday marks the first day that a limited number of Ontario businesses can open their doors after powering down for about two months due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
As announced by the province last week, all construction, as well as certain health and medical services, seasonal and recreational activities and household and animal services can now resume operations.
So can retail stores outside of shopping malls, provided they have street-front entrances and can maintain physical distancing measures to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, according to the Ontario government.
While Tuesday’s step forward marks progress for an economy that all but ground to a halt in March, it’s still the first in what officials have said will be a slow and cautious reboot with a contagious virus that still looms large.
“This is a critical transition for many countries around the world,” Dr. Saverio Stranges, professor and chair of Western University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, said on Monday.
“We need to be careful, especially in indoor spaces, to avoid gatherings of a large number of people with long duration of contact between people.”
In a news conference last week, Premier Doug Ford said that “businesses should open only if they are ready” and emphasized that the province’s reopening plan is “dependent” on the virus’ activity.
“The truth is we can’t fully predict where things will go, so we need to be ready to react if we see a sudden increase in cases,” Ford said.
“We can not let our guard down now. We must watch the trends like a hawk.”
As of Monday, Ontario health officials had reported a total of 22,957 confirmed coronavirus cases across the province — although just shy of 77 per cent of those are now considered resolved.
Over the long weekend, the reported number of daily new cases fluctuated somewhat. The daily case count saw an uptick from 341 cases on Friday to 391 cases on Saturday. That was followed by a decline to 340 new cases on Sunday and then 304 cases on Monday.
The number of new daily cases has remained under 400 since May 9.
Still evidence of community spread, people need to be ‘responsible’: health experts
Although provincial officials have said new cases are “trending down”, Stranges warned there’s still evidence of “some community spread.”
“We are still in a pandemic situation and I trust the people of Ottawa will continue to be vigilant to protect themselves and protect others,” Dr. Vera Etches told reporters.
Stranges said all Ontarians must continue to comply with public health recommendations and restrictions, emphasizing that controlling the epidemic is “everyone’s responsibility” — not just that of health professionals and policy makers.
“People need to be responsible.”
Stranges suggested people wear face coverings in public indoor spaces — which mirrors public health officials’ advice for situations where physical distancing isn’t possible. And anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 should avoid other individuals, especially vulnerable populations, Stranges added.
“We are still in a situation where we can not go back to normal life but we need to adjust to this new normal and buy time ,” he said.
When can Stage 2 begin?
Provincial leaders have indicated that each phase of the government’s three-staged framework for reopening the economy will last between two and four weeks so health officials have time to monitor the impact of each set of changes. An added consideration is that symptoms in newly-infected COVID-19 cases may take up to 14 days to show.
“We said … that framework was a roadmap, not a schedule,” Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips said in an interview with The West Block last week, in reference to how the three stages weren’t anchored by specific dates.
“We said: ‘These dates will be tied to achieving certain public health metrics.'”
To consider moving ahead, “we want to see that curve still going down and not the opposite … like a surge or reversal of trend,” Stranges told Global News.
Asked about who gets to make the final call on when the province’s full reopening can occur, Phillips told The West Block that the Progressive Conservative government makes its pandemic response decisions “based on the best health and science advice.”
Although businesses can now get up and running again, Ontario still hasn’t moved to loosen an emergency ban on gatherings larger than five people.
On Thursday, the province said word on any “additional adjustments” to social gatherings, childcare and schools will come later and be informed by advice from Ontario’s top doctor.
“I just ask, just hang in there just a little bit longer and we’ll get through it,” Ford said Thursday.
For his part, Stranges said he doesn’t think the province is out of the woods enough to loosen the strict restrictions on large gatherings.
“I think for the reasoning that we still have hundreds of new cases on a daily basis, I would definitely extend the implementation of those restrictions in terms of gatherings … until we see that those numbers will continue going down,” he said.
In his interview last week, Phillips said his government understands that “COVID has not gone away”, nor have Ontarians’ concerns about the virus.
“We have to continue to do things that inspire their confidence,” he told Global News.
“None of us have had to turn on an economy before so we’re learning through this together, but I do have ultimately a lot of confidence in the resilience of Ontario business people and Ontarians, in general, to come through this.”
-With a file from Global News’ Craig Lord
As we gradually reopen the province, it’s never been more important to take everyday actions to reduce exposure and protect people’s health. Physical distancing, frequent hand washing and cleaning devices will continue to be crucial in Ontario’s fight against #COVID19. pic.twitter.com/6QzlXBPbyK
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) May 16, 2020
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