By Sue Tiffin
A new year has brought new provincial restrictions during the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In-person school will move to online learning for the next two weeks, indoor dining at restaurants will be temporarily closed and all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures will be paused in an effort to preserve the province’s healthcare system.
In a Jan. 3 press conference, Premier Doug Ford announced the province would move to a modified Step Two of the government’s Roadmap to Reopen, with the new measures beginning Jan. 5 in an attempt to slow a surge of COVID-19 cases that modelling shows will overwhelm hospitals. Ford said public health experts said hundreds of thousands of cases of COVID-19 could be reported every day as the highly-transmissible Omicron variant spreads. He noted the variant is so contagious it can’t be stopped, only slowed and that the current pace of spread is not sustainable for hospitals.
“The fact is Omicron spreads like wildfire,” he said. “If we don’t act, if we don’t do everything possible to get this variant under control, the results could be catastrophic. It is a risk I cannot take.”
That day, 1,232 people were reported to be in hospital with COVID-19, 248 of those in intensive care units, though not all hospitals reported on the weekend. In Ontario, 13,578 new cases of COVID-19 had been reported although that number does not record accurate numbers due to restrictions put in place Dec. 31 on who can now receive a PCR test, that being high-risk individuals, frontline workers, residents in high-risk settings and other vulnerable populations. Locally according to the health unit’s Jan. 3 data, Haliburton County had reported a pandemic-high of 88 unresolved cases of COVID-19, with 54 new cases reported Jan. 3 – the first report since Dec. 30. Within the province, 3.7 million booster shots have been administered to date.
All public and private schools will move to remote learning beginning Jan. 5, until at least Jan. 17, though schools will be open for emergency child care, and to provide in-person instruction for students with ‘special education needs’ who cannot be accommodated remotely and for staff who are unable to teach from home.
A previous announcement, made on Dec. 30 by chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore, had said in-person school would still be happening although a start date would be delayed from Jan. 3 to Jan. 5, which Moore said would give time for school staff to be equipped with N95 masks and for the government to deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units to schools.
After the Jan. 3 announcement, a statement from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the largest education union in the province said the announcement was “a safer decision than the one made last week, but additional action is still needed.”
“As the pandemic surges, the Ford government must invest in infection prevention and control measures that ensure in-person learning can continue safely and sustainably,” said ETFO president Karen Brown. “Last week’s decision came dangerously close to risking the safety of students and ETFO members. We share the belief that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn, but it must be safe.”
ETFO called for measures including N95 masks to be available to all education workers; that everyone attending school or campus who could be vaccinated should be vaccinated; that access to booster shots should be prioritized for education workers; that HEPA filters should be installed in all classrooms and shared spaces; that Rapid Antigen Tests should be provided to students and education workers to minimize absenteeism and learning loss; that the paid sick leave program be expanded; that a plan for staff absenteeism due to isolation requirements be provided; and that the province must continue to monitor and report COVID-19 cases/outbreaks in schools, which the government had announced on Dec. 30 it would stop doing.
In the Q and A portion of the press conference, Ford and provincial officials did not offer specific responses to reporters’ questions about when other safety measures were expected to be put in place at schools.
As of Jan. 5, social gatherings are limited to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors; organized public events are limited to five people indoors; businesses and organizations are required to ensure employees work remotely unless they need to be on-site; retail settings including shopping malls are permitted at 50 per cent capacity; personal care services, public libraries, outdoor establishments and boat tours are permitted at 50 per cent capacity.
Across the county, restaurants reacted swiftly to the announcement.
The Kosy Korner posted, “Tuesday is our last day. Twenty per cent off all food for dine in or take out, one day only. See you on the other side – stay safe.” They expected to reopen after the duration of restrictions.
“Well, here we go again,” read a Jan. 3 post including a photo of a take-out sign on the Mill Pond restaurant’s Facebook page. “Who would have thought that two years ago when my friend Bill made me this sign for in front of the restaurant I’d still be using it today. Thanks buddy, it’s become a fixture around here. Hopefully one day I can make it into a table top and only look at it to remember these crazy times we lived through.”
Jan. 4 was the last day for the Mill Pond’s table service, with the restaurant opening for take-out only on Jan. 5 as per the new guidelines.
“I’ll be posting our specials daily again and keeping in touch with everyone,” reads the post. “Hang in there and stay safe. We got this.”
Some restaurants had already closed due to staff being close contacts with people who had tested positive.
An expanded Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program for businesses affected by restrictions was also announced on Jan. 3, with some businesses being reimbursed 100 per cent of property tax and energy costs if ordered to close, and those that must reduce capacity receiving a rebate payment for half those costs.
The new restrictions are expected to remain in place until at least Jan. 26, when Moore said hospital admissions were expected to peak.