Chris Selley: Premier Ford, open Canada’s most populous province

One of the most intensely frustrating aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this ordeal that we’re all supposedly “in together,” is how many people seem unable to argue for one freedom without pitting it against another. For these folks it’s never just “why can’t I play baseball with my friends?” It’s “why is my neighbour allowed to play golf with his friends?” It’s never “why can’t my kid go to school in the fall?” It’s “why can my neighbours go out for a meal?”

This instinct is redlining here in Ontario with the news that much of the province, with exceptions including the Greater Toronto Area, is to shift into Phase Three of its reopening: As of Friday gyms, playgrounds and movie theatres will be allowed to open, and restaurants and bars will be allowed to serve indoors. That’s happening as the province’s Ministry of Education remains outrageously unambitious about getting kids back to school in September, with various patently insane proposals — including three days at school one week and two days the next — understandably frying parents’ already parboiled brains. And the freedom-traders are furious about it, as if not letting people go out for an omelette would somehow teach kids math. Perhaps the most maddening thing is that it lets the government off the hook for not being able to do two things at once.

Of course it’s true that reopening these businesses comes with risk, including new outbreaks that in theory might jeopardize school reopenings. But let’s be clear: getting kids back to school isn’t primarily an epidemiological problem. Of all the horror stories you’ve heard about COVID-19, you haven’t heard about scores of kids falling deathly ill in jurisdictions that have reopened schools, or that never closed them in the first place. Getting kids back to school is primarily a logistical challenge: finding more space and hiring more teachers and staff, including replacements for those vulnerable to COVID-19. Alas, governments do not excel at solving logistical challenges.

It’s more madness still to compare our situation to that in the American south, where COVID-19 is exploding, or even Quebec, which has seen nearly two-and-a-half times the number of cases per capita as Ontario, and more deaths per capita than any nation state save Andorra, Belgium and San Marino. By any reasonable global standard, like it or not, Ontario continues to err on the side of caution.

And then there’s poor Sweden. Twenty per cent more Quebecers per capita have died than Swedes, but the North American media will not stop dumping on the elongated country. A widely noted article in the New York Times last week described its failure thusly: “Not only have thousands more people died than in neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns, but Sweden’s economy has fared little better.”

It was myopic American framing. Sweden’s no-lockdown approach wasn’t designed to preserve its GDP and employment figures; that would have been ridiculous. Sweden’s is an export economy, which is going to suffer mightily in any global recession, no matter what the cause. What Sweden did was take a broader view of “public health” than “not dying of COVID-19.” Its public health officials, who famously crafted the country’s policies independent of politicians, took the outrageous-in-Ontario view that being able to go about one’s life in something approaching a normal fashion has value beyond how much money you spend while you’re out of the house.

Sweden’s numbers are undeniably grim, although less so than lockdown European countries like the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. But as much as Sweden’s approach was caricatured as “business as usual” — many restrictions were in place — so were its neighbour nations. Denmark and Norway sent primary school children back to school in April. They reopened restaurants for indoor dining two months ago. If you haven’t heard about that, it’s probably because nothing bad happened.

Goodness knows I’m offering no predictions of a problem-free reopening in Canada’s most populous province. But after four devastating months, the effects of which we will be living with for many years, the idea of telling Ontario’s resolutely conservative and cautious public health officials to slow down seems utterly absurd.

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Let’s also be clear about the risk Ontario is facing. When Florida reopened bars and restaurants in early June, the state’s seven-day rolling average new-case count was over 1,200, or 56 per million population. Arizona had nearly the same new-case count when it reopened bars and restaurants a month earlier. Montreal, the newest cautionary example, reopened bars and restaurants on June 22 with a seven-day rolling average of 48 new cases per day, or 27 per million.

On Monday, Ontario reported 129 new cases of COVID-19, or just under nine per million. Seventeen public health units in Ontario reported zero new cases on both July 11 and 12. Nineteen have 10 or fewer active COVID-19 cases, and eight have none — that includes significant population centres like Peterborough and Sudbury. Yes, people travel. But it’s madness to enforce the same policies there as in the province’s real trouble centres: Windsor, Peel Region and to an ever-lesser extent Toronto.

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