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Doug Ford announces plan for Stage 1 of easing COVID-19 restrictions. Is Ontario ready?

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday how the province will start to reopen its economy and phase out some emergency restrictions that were imposed to combat COVID-19.

The announcement laid out a plan to lift restrictions on construction and to allow the reopening of retail stores that are not in malls, as well as seasonal businesses, pet services and household maintenance.

Ford said Ontario will begin to phase out its semi-lockdown starting on May 19 — but a key question looming over the announcement is whether Ontario’s public health system has enough of a handle on the pandemic that Stage 1 of the reopening plan can be launched safely. 

The Ford government’s framework for the reopening, unveiled in late April, set out clear public health criteria for beginning to phase out restrictions on businesses and gatherings. They included: 

  • A consistent two–to-four week decrease in the number of new daily COVID‑19 cases.
  • Sufficient acute and critical care hospital capacity to respond to potential surges.
  • Approximately 90 per cent of new COVID‑19 case contacts being reached by local public health officials within one day.
  • Ongoing testing of suspected cases to detect new outbreaks quickly.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre, and Progressive Conservative MPPs observe a moment of silence for those who have died from COVID-19 during Tuesday’s sitting of the legislature. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Have those criteria been met?

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams seemed unsure on Tuesday

“We haven’t had all those things come together where we say, ‘Now we’re ready to enter Stage 1,'” said Williams. “I think we’re getting closer but if it was already there, I would have already recommended it.” 

Williams did not attend Wednesday’s provincial briefing.

“In general, I think that the trends are very positive,” said Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe when asked whether the province is hitting its targets. 

While the publicly available data seems to suggest Ontario has seen a steady decrease in the daily number of new cases and has sufficient hospital capacity, it’s not so clear whether testing and contact tracing are adequate. 

“If we’re not testing widely enough, if we’re only catching five per cent of actual cases in the population, that’s going to be a problem, and that’s not going to be sufficient to keep cases down once we start lifting the physical distancing measures,” said epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

“We don’t really know at this point the number of people who are mildly symptomatic who are being turned away [from testing].”

Tuite said in an interview Wednesday that she’s worried about the possibility that Ontario is seeing lower numbers of confirmed cases in part because testing is being restricted. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott promised Wednesday to roll out a plan for wider testing of the general public “very soon.” 

These wheelchairs belonged to some of the residents of Camilla Care in Mississauga who have died due to COVID-19. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“It’s going to be really important as we open up parts of our economy that we do … that surveillance testing in the community,” Elliott said during the premier’s daily news conference.  

On Thursday, she announced an expansion of the province’s testing guidelines so that “anyone with symptoms” will be able to get a test.  

“This next phase of our testing strategy will help ensure we identify and contain new cases and allow us to closely monitor any shifts in community spread,” said Elliott’s spokesperson Hayley Chazan in an email to reporters. 

The province’s framework says Stage 1 would involve: 

  • Opening select workplaces that can meet current public health guidelines.
  • Allowing essential gatherings of a limited number of people.
  • Opening some outdoor spaces.

The framework describes the workplaces that would qualify as those “workplaces that can immediately meet or modify operations to meet public health guidance and occupational health and safety requirements (e.g., curbside pickup or delivery).”

Curbside pickup — for businesses that had been closed as non-essential — has been allowed since Monday. Also on Monday, Ontario reopened access to provincial parks, but campsites and facilities at all parks remain closed. 

Read the province’s plan for Stage 1 of reopening below:

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