Premier Doug Ford has ordered random police checks for motorists, closed playgrounds and golf courses, and put checkpoints at the Quebec and Manitoba borders under Ontario’s latest COVID-19 restrictions.
Taking effect this weekend, the measures come as the province is setting daily records in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, a trend expected to continue for at least two more weeks, with swamped intensive care units bracing to be overwhelmed.
“We’re losing the battle … we’re on our heels. There are few options left,” a grim-faced Ford told reporters Friday at Queen’s Park.
The premier said Ontario’s stay-home order, which has been in effect since last week, will be extended until May 20.
Police and First Nations constables will be empowered to randomly stop motorists and ask them for identification and why they are out and about. Scofflaws face $750 fines.
There will be a ban on outdoor gatherings with people from other households unless it’s with someone who lives alone.
But weddings, funerals, and places of worship will be permitted to have 10 people indoors starting Monday. Receptions and wakes will be prohibited unless involving members of the same household.
Some Progressive Conservative MPPs bristled at the restrictions, which were beefed up Friday afternoon following a fractious morning caucus meeting, said Tory sources, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations.
“Caucus doesn’t appreciate how hard cabinet is working,” one minister scolded two Toronto-area members, who were complaining about the new prohibitions.
Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, blasted the “hodgepodge of pandemic restrictions.”
“It’s a Black Friday of rights-slashing by Queen’s Park today, risking a rash of racial profiling,” said Bryant, a former Ontario attorney general.
“Random police stops during COVID are unconstitutional,” he said, noting they differ from RIDE stops designed to clamp down on drunk driving.
Ford is halting non-essential construction on things like malls, hotels and office towers, although work on housing and transit projects will continue, as it will on hospitals and long-term care facilities.
Workplace inspections will be stepped up, including in law offices and accounting firms, said Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, who believes more people can and should be working from home.
There will be further limits on retailers by curbing capacity in supermarkets and pharmacies, which could lead to lineups.
Playgrounds, golf courses, soccer fields, basketball courts and other outdoor recreational amenities are being closed as of Saturday.
Border checkpoints will pop up with Quebec and Manitoba to curb the spread of new variants not yet prevalent in Ontario. There will be exceptions for people who live or work on either side of the border.
As well, Ford has asked the federal government to restrict interprovincial air travel.
The premier pledged to increase vaccines by 25 per cent in 13 hot-spot regions, including Toronto and Peel Region, but emphasized Ottawa needs to step up with more supply.
His comments came after the government’s science table of expert advisers predicted a worst-case scenario of more than 30,000 new infections a day by the end of next month if restrictions were eased.
With strong public-health controls and a continued vaccination rate of 100,000 shots a day, Ontario’s case count could be kept hovering around the current level of 5,000 cases a day, said Steini Brown, co-chair of the science table.
The province set a record Friday with 4,812 new cases. There have been 7,664 COVID-19 deaths in the past 13 months.
But with enhanced measures and tripling vaccinations to 300,000 daily, cases are projected to decline to well under that level.
Brown, who heads the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, warned that even July and August look perilous.
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“Without stronger system-level measures and immediate support for essential workers and high-risk communities, high case rates will persist through the summer,” he said.
“You could still see something of a summer but it requires everyone to pull together.”
That warning was echoed by Health Minister Christine Elliott. “I know it’s been a long winter, but now our summer is at risk,” she said.
Brown said that although the rates are improving, “vaccination is not reaching people at high-risk fast enough to overcome the level of serious illness in our communities and our hospitals.”
COVID-19 is just the tip of an iceberg that could cause titanic surgery backlogs for Ontario’s health-care system, he said. “ICU occupancy is compromising care for all patients.”
The science table noted that along with new and more infectious variants, the original strains of COVID-19 infections are rising again.
Hospitalizations have jumped 67 per cent and ICU occupancy is up 51 per cent in the last two weeks.
The six-week stay-at-home order with at least 100,000 vaccinations a day is “the only way to flatten the curve,” said Brown.
It was the third week in a row that Ford unleashed a higher level of public health restrictions, dogged by concerns that his easing of measures since the second wave faded in February paved the way for the worst crisis of the pandemic.
Schools remain closed to in-class learning indefinitely, but daycares are staying open.
With the Greater Toronto Area “struggling” because of the virus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was prepared to deploy mobile Red Cross vaccination teams.
He offered assistance to Ford in arranging extra health-care workers from other provinces as Ontario hospitals fear they will soon be overwhelmed by the third wave surge.
“We are ready to step up,” Trudeau said after several more Toronto vaccine clinics said they will close.
“This is a moment when it’s all hands on deck,” the prime minister said, declining to criticize Ontario’s response to the pandemic when pressed by a reporter.
In response, Ford’s office said “while we appreciate the prime minister’s offer, unless it is matched with an increase in supply, we do not need the Red Cross at this time for the administration of vaccines in Ontario.
“We do not have a capacity issue, we have a supply issue.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford can only blame himself for Ontario’s predicament.
“He has been warned again and again by experts, and he is still choosing to push us all right into a long, deep, deadly catastrophe,” said Horwath.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said “people will continue dying as long as Doug Ford is overseeing public health measures.
“The half-hearted half measures fall far short of what’s needed to save lives at this critical juncture,” said Del Duca.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner was flabbergasted that the Tories didn’t use this latest crisis to finally introduce a provincial paid sick leave program to bolster the federal scheme that pays just $500 a week.
“Doug Ford’s failure to act has led to this point. Lives are at risk,” said Schreiner. “Yet his new measures won’t be enough.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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