Staying home to stop the spread

By Sabrina Nanji January 13, 2021

After a marathon five-hour cabinet meeting to discuss further pandemic restrictions, many of which had already leaked, Premier Doug Ford announced a second state of emergency and an enforceable stay-at-home order along with stricter measures to rein in the spread of Covid.

But critics say the new restrictions are contradictory and fall far short of what’s needed.

Here are the highlights from Tuesday’s announcement:

No curfew, but stay at home
As of Thursday, Ontarians will be required to not leave their homes unless it’s for essential reasons, such as buying groceries, accessing health services, going to their (essential) job or to exercise.

Outdoor gatherings are capped at five, down from 10; people are advised to mask up outside.

Discretionary law enforcement
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones says all cops, including OPP, local police and bylaw officers, will have expanded enforcement powers, which are largely up to individual officers’ discretion. Giving police loose discretionary oversight has already raised some eyebrows.

Asked about the difference between the stay-at-home order and a curfew — which Quebec has implemented and Ontario was at one point considering — Ford said police wouldn’t be stopping drivers on the highway to determine if they’re travelling for “essential” purposes. Ford has previously said he isn’t a fan of a “police state.”

Per the Reopening Ontario Act (a.k.a. Bill 195, which empowers the Ford government to amend and extend the current emergency orders), individual scofflaws can face fines up to $100,000 and a year in jail.

Scaled-back retail and construction, but not much changes for big-box stores
Non-essential retail shops — think: hardware, alcohol, pet supply stores and those offering curbside pickup — can only operate between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. That doesn’t apply to stores primarily selling food, such as grocery and big-box stores; pharmacies; gas stations; convenience stores; and restaurants offering takeout and delivery.

The “800-pound gorilla” the premier sometimes likens himself to when cracking down on Covid matters also made a comeback. Ford said he’ll be on big-box stores like a heavyset primate to ensure they’re following capacity restrictions and promised an inspection “blitz” by the Ministry of Labour.

Non-essential construction is also getting rolled back, but a lot of leeway remains. Any building related to public infrastructure, energy, mining, broadband, petrochemicals, PPE production and residential development is still a go, as are manufacturing, warehousing and food-processing projects that are set to be completed by July or commenced before January 12.

Home renos that are already in the works can also remain ongoing. Excavation and other site prep work for “institutional, commercial, industrial or residential development” can too.

Manufacturing remains unfazed. Earlier this week, Dennis Darby, the CEO and president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said any shutdown in the sector would mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Lack of social supports: Eviction moratorium en route, but no added sick pay
The government is also “exploring” options to reinstate a temporary moratorium on residential evictions — something that, along with expanded sick pay, health officials say is critical to slowing infections.

“People need to be supported to do the right thing,” said associate top doc Barbara Yaffe. Some who can’t afford to lose a paycheque may go to work despite feeling sick, she said.

A senior government official told Queen’s Park Today the PCs are finalizing a mechanism to stop enforcement of evictions, but cabinet has given the thumbs-up. The previous eviction ban was made via judicial order.

There are no changes to paid sick leave. Asked to explain why not, Ford only said he didn’t want to “duplicate” the federal benefit. But many have pointed out Ottawa is only providing $500 a week for up to two weeks, which comes out to $450 after tax and pays less than minimum wage.

Labour advocates say provincial sick days aren’t a “duplicate” because they are job-protected and there’s no disruption in wages.

School’s out in hot zones
Students will continue learning from home until February 10 in hard-hit Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex.

When kids in grades 1 to 3 return to in-class instruction, they will be required to wear masks.

Schools in the north are still wide open (which a local teachers’ union branch said has left education workers feeling “expendable”). The chief medical officer will recommend which remaining southern public health units may return to in-class learning by January 20; remote learning continues until at least January 25. Child care facilities remain open.

‘Contradictory’ and ‘unfair’
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the changes “contradictory” and “deadly half-measures.” She slammed the Ford government for not limiting big-box stores or beefing up paid sick leave.

“The scary thing is that Doug Ford knows what needs to be done — the experts’ recommendations are clear. But Mr. Ford is listening to lobbyists, listening to his cabinet, avoiding spending, and ignoring the experts’ advice and warnings — and people are paying the price,” Horwath said.

Canadian Federation of Independent Business head Dan Kelly said the government handed a “huge competitive advantage” to stores like Walmart and Costco while making lockdown “even worse” for small retailers, which are limited to curbside pickup by 8 p.m.

“How this will help stop the spread of COVID-19 is anyone’s guess,” Kelly said.

Health system on the brink, modelling shows
The province also dropped the “scary” modelling Ford had said would make Ontarians “fall off [their] chair.” But Dr. Steini Brown, who co-chairs the science advisory table and presented the latest statistics, said it’s “not substantially different” than previous forecasts.

Highlights include: