Canada

As COVID surges in the U.S., some experts worry about plan to further open up Ontario

Dine-in restaurants, playgrounds, gyms and even movie theatres will be allowed to re-open in much of Ontario Friday — although not in the Greater Toronto Area — as the province moves into the recovery period of a staggered re-opening plan.

The new guidelines will apply in 24 of Ontario’s 34 public health regions, including all of Northern Ontario, Ottawa, Kingston and most of cottage country. Excluded from the list, for now, are Toronto and most of its suburbs, as well as several areas home to large farms and greenhouses, including Windsor-Essex County and Niagara.

The gradual reopening comes after weeks of low — and in some areas, no — growth in the number of new COVID-19 cases in the province. Twenty public health units had five or fewer new cases on Monday, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott. Twenty-one had no new cases at all. Overall the province saw 116 new cases Monday, an increase of 0.3% from the day before.

Still, the move to re-open so many businesses, so quickly, has some experts concerned. Just two hours after Ontario announced its plan to re-open bars and restaurants for dine-in service, California’s governor ordered all dine-in restaurants, and all bars in his state to close immediately.

That move came after California, often praised for its pandemic response, was hit with a surge of new COVID cases, many tied, as they have been in places as disparate as Pittsburgh, Seoul and Montreal, to the re-opening of establishments where people, especially young people, can get drunk together inside.

“That is probably the one piece — especially the bars — that is questionable (about the re-opening,)” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist in Hamilton. The province has taken some steps to mitigate the possible danger. Indoor gatherings, including in restaurants and bars, will be limited to 50 people. Social distancing rules will still apply, and everyone being served must have a seat.

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Nightclubs, meanwhile, are still banned, as are private karaoke rooms, dancing and buffets.

But enforcing those rules, across all of Ontario, won’t be easy. “The problem is, this is probably going to be personally policed, on the honour rule,” Chagla said. Servers and bartenders will be asked to monitor drunk young people who may not always accept the wisdom of staying six feet apart. “That’s probably the only one where it’s a little bit dicey and that needs to be watched closely,” Chagla said.

Asked about the logic of opening up bars for indoor service now, given what’s happened in the United States, Premier Doug Ford admitted it could be an issue. “You aren’t wrong,” he told media.

“I see these numbers from Florida and they’re staggering: 15,000 people contacted COVID in a day, that is scary. But we’re being pretty vigilant. We aren’t rushing into anything. We’re opening up slowly, in stage three, and being very, very cautious about it. But you make a good point.”

There's going to be some point where we're going to have to say, okay, it's time to see what happens if we open up again

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, said it’s only partially fair to compare the American example to Ontario. It is the same disease and American bars and restaurants aren’t that different from Canadian ones. “But it’s not fair to the extent that Americans rushed back to the bars and behaved a certain way, flagrantly denying the threat, and Canadians in large part are not denying the threat,” he said.

“So epidemiologically, it’s fair to compare them because an exposure happened and we saw an outcome. Sociologically, it may not be fair because the exposure may not be exactly the same given the differences in human behavior.”

Ford said Monday that about 90 per cent of Ontario businesses should be able to reopen in stage three. Among the activities and business that are still considered unsafe are amusement parks and water parks, overnight camps for children, saunas, steam rooms, bathhouses and oxygen bars, and sports that involve “prolonged or deliberate” contact.

The health regions that won’t be moving to stage three Friday are:

• Durham Region Health Department.
• Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit.
• Halton Region Public Health.
• Hamilton Public Health Services.
• Lambton Public Health.
• Niagara Region Public Health.
• Peel Public Health.
• Toronto Public Health.
• Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
• York Region Public Health.

As for the plan as whole, Chagra understands why some people are nervous. But “there’s going to be some point where we’re going to have to say, okay, it’s time to see what happens if we open up again and try to resume normal life,” he said. The plan seems reasonable, he said, and generally controlled.

“And we have the testing capacity to see, if anything does happen, that people are able to get tested right away and kind of get a sense of what’s going on.”

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