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Doug Ford ‘cautiously optimistic’ Ontario could reopen early


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Doug Ford ‘cautiously optimistic’ Ontario could reopen early

Premier Doug Ford is raising expectations Ontario will get the “green light” to start reopening from the third wave of COVID-19 before the target of mid-June.

Just two weeks after warning against such a prospect, Ford said Wednesday he is “cautiously optimistic” because of a steady decline in key indicators and has asked soon-to-retire chief medical officer Dr. David Williams for an opinion.

“I’m so hopeful that, as things are going, we may be able to enter step one safely earlier than June 14. Right now we’re waiting for Dr. Williams and his team to tell us when we may be ready to do so.”

Ontario reported 733 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, getting closer to the goal of 550 to 600 on a consistent basis set last month by Williams, who holds a regularly scheduled news conference Thursday.

The province unveiled a three-step reopening plan last month tied to rising vaccination levels and declining COVID-19 statistics, with 21 days between each stage.

Ford’s tease of an earlier return to patios and a limited number of customers in non-essential retailers came as he maintained it’s not safe for schools to resume in-class learning until September because of more contagious COVID-19 variants like the B.1.617 strain first identified in India and already prevalent in the United Kingdom.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath accused Ford of sending “mixed messages,” while a hospitality industry source said uncertainty about an early reopening within days is creating a last-minute scramble to schedule staff and order perishable food and beverages from suppliers.

“Makes planning difficult to say the least.”

Peel Region’s chief medical officer said preliminary data from Ontario’s science table suggests the B.1.617 variant — named Delta by the World Health Organization — could become dominant in the Mississauga-Brampton area next month “with the rest of Ontario weeks behind” because it is more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 or Alpha strain that fuelled the third wave.

Dr. Lawrence Loh called for the province to stick with a “cautious” reopening plan and to consider accelerating second vaccinations for hot spots in Peel, a suggestion echoed by Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.

“We do need to have an aggressive second-dose strategy.”

With the province-wide stay-at-home order lifted Wednesday, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business is pushing for a quicker reopening to make up for months of lockdowns.

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Health Minister Christine Elliott said that will depend on hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, the reproduction rate of the virus and capacity of 34 public health units across the province to do contact tracing and case management for people still becoming infected despite improving vaccination rates.

“We are reviewing them daily and as soon as we hit the levels that Dr. Williams and the team say are safe then we will be able to move into stage one.”

Williams has not set specific targets for many of those indicators but has previously acknowledged Ontario eased restrictions too much during the winter.

“We didn’t get all the way out of the second wave before we went to the third wave…we do not want a fourth wave at all,” he told a news conference May 13 when the stay-at-home order was extended.

University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness said Ford should stick to the June 14 date — or extend it.

“Under no circumstances should we open sooner,” he told the Star, noting there is no rapid screening test for The Delta variant, as there are for others, meaning it is more difficult to track its spread. Fewer than 400 cases have been confirmed.

“Every day in June that we invest in dropping COVID-19 transmission might buy us several days at the end of the summer.”

While more than 71 per cent of Ontarian adults have one dose of COVID vaccine, The Delta variant is more contagious than the dominant Alpha strain and that means “it’s not enough to get everyone a first dose,” Furness said.

Just over six per cent of adults have had two shots, with a goal of 20 per cent to enter stage two of the reopening when barber shops and hair salons can resume cutting hair, for example. That could happen by the end of June if the province enters step one on Monday.

According to provincial statistics for the week ended Saturday, 12 of the province’s 34 regional health units — including the entire Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area — have weekly case levels high enough to keep them in the most stringent red or lockdown zones under a colour-coded framework of restrictions implemented last fall.

That framework has been abandoned in favour of the three-stage reopening plan.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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