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‘Please, just make decisions based on the evidence’: Halton mayors lobby against expanding Stage 2 restrictions as COVID-19 hits new highs in Ontario


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‘Please, just make decisions based on the evidence’: Halton mayors lobby against expanding Stage 2 restrictions as COVID-19 hits new highs in Ontario

As Ontario hit a grim new COVID-19 milestone Saturday, leaders in some of the province’s harder-hit areas urged the provincial government not to impose more restrictions on regions that haven’t already been rolled back to Stage 2.

The province reported 978 new cases in its morning update, a single-day record that has also pushed Ontario’s rolling seven-day average to a pandemic-high 803 cases daily. Locally, the province reported 348 new cases in Toronto, 170 in Peel, 141 in York Region, 89 in Ottawa and 51 in Durham.

Meanwhile, open letters from politicians in Halton Region — one to Premier Doug Ford and one to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams — said the province shouldn’t impose new restrictions there. Earlier this month, the province imposed a return to a “modified Stage 2” in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region, all of which continue to see higher rates of infection than in Halton.

Halton’s latest report Saturday showed an increase of 35 cases.

“A blanket approach that unfairly punishes small businesses with no explanation will hurt our local economy and impact buy-in from our residents,” said the letter to Ford, signed by mayors of four cities and towns in Halton, as well as regional chair Gary Carr.

The letter to Williams, meanwhile, demanded the release of specific criteria and benchmarks being used when reinstating or lifting COVID-related restrictions.

“During the height of COVID-19, the majority of Ontarians accepted unprecedented restrictions in order to stop the spread and flatten the curve. Now, nearly seven months later the public is demanding more than just the blanket statement of ‘on the advice of medical experts,’ ” said the letter, signed by Carr, two mayors and a pair of Progressive Conservative MPPs.

Burlington mayor Marianne Meed Ward, who signed both letters, said the message to provincial officials was simple.

“Please, just make decisions based on the evidence,” Ward said in an interview.

Ward said she was hopeful the province wouldn’t roll Halton back to the modified Stage 2. The letter to Williams added that the region has taken a number of steps after York was rolled back to Stage 2 a week ago, including a ban on using municipal facilities for team sports and fitness classes.

“There is no evidence to suggest that moving Halton to a modified Phase 2 will have any meaningful impact on reducing case counts. One thing that is certain, is that many people and businesses cannot financially withstand another shutdown,” the letter added.

The mayor of Oshawa also urged the province not to clamp down in Durham Region, saying the economic toll would be disastrous, and unnecessary.

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“I understand that everyone’s health and well-being has to be the top concern. But I just don’t think a return to Stage 2 is justified, based on the numbers,” Mayor Dan Carter said in an interview. “It would be devastating for the economy, especially in the restaurant industry.”

As of Saturday evening, Durham and Halton have the sixth- and seventh-highest rate of new cases per capita in the province, at 35 and 34 cases per 100,000 people per week, respectively.

In an email, Ford spokesperson Ivana Yelich defended the provincial government’s pandemic performance.

“While the numbers in Halton and other parts of the province are concerning, we are working very hard to control the spread of the virus as much as possible,” said Yelich, who also gave some broad details of which criteria are used in assessing regional COVID risk.

“These include COVID-19 spread and containment, public health capacity to conduct rapid case and contact management, the type and setting of outbreaks, incidence tracking, increases in hospitalization and ICU admission and testing capacity,” Yelich said. “As we have done in the past, we will continue to provide a clear account of the data and evidence if and when a region needs to be moved into modified Stage 2.”

Toronto General Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch suggested the province should wait another week before imposing restrictions on new areas, to see if the return to Stage 2 is working elsewhere.

“Next week will be crucial, because that’s when we’ll start to really see what kind of impact the restrictions brought in for Toronto and Peel will have. Right now, it’s still a bit too early to tell,” Bogoch said.

Jean-Paul Soucy, a University of Toronto PhD student in epidemiology and co-founder of the COVID-19 Canada Open Data Working Group, disagreed, saying the province should act sooner rather than later in regions like Halton and Durham.

“The earlier you act, the more your return is compounded,” he said.

Soucy also noted that Ontario’s numbers would likely have been higher sooner if the province hadn’t changed the testing system to be appointment-only earlier this month. Since then, the province has reported fewer completed tests daily on average.

“The fact that we’re seeing higher numbers like this despite the changes in testing is concerning,” Soucy said.

Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer

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