The Ford government has issued another stay-at-home order amid surging COVID-19 cases and will also order the closure of all non-essential retail outlets for in-person shopping.
The order will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday and will be accompanied by Ontario’s third state of emergency declaration since the beginning of the pandemic. It is expected to remain in effect for at least four weeks and Premier Doug Ford says that he is hopeful that by the time it is lifted approximately 40 per cent of Ontario adults will have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, perhaps representing a turning point in a pandemic that has now dragged on for more than a year.
“That is when things will start to change dramatically in our favour,” he said. “But the decisions we make now, how we handle the next four weeks and what we do before we start achieving mass immunization will be the difference between life and death for thousands of people. I can’t put it any more clear than that.”
The last stay-at-home order took effect on Jan. 14 and was gradually lifted in public health units across the province, beginning in mid-February. It remained in effect in Toronto and Peel Region until March 8, meaning the new order comes into effect precisely one month after the last one expired.
The Ford government says that so long as the latest order is in effect residents will be required to stay at home except for “except for essential purposes, such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy, accessing health care services (including getting vaccinated), exercising close to home and with the people you live with, or for work that cannot be done remotely.”
Ontarians can face fines of $750 for violating the stay-at-home order, though few fines were issued the last time one was in effect and police forces mostly chose to deal with enforcement on a complaint only basis.
“To boil it down as simple as possible, folks please stay home unless it is for an essential reason,” Ford said in making the announcement. “The situation is extremely serious and we just need to hunker down right now, we need to limit mobility.”
Big box retailers can only sell essential goods
The new restrictions announced by the Ford government will allow grocery stores and pharmacies to remain open with capacity limits, as well as big-box stores that sell grocery items.
But big box stores will only be permitted to sell groceries, household cleaning supplies and pharmacy items to in-person shoppers, something that was not the case during the last stay-at-home order this past winter.
Most other non-essential retailers will be limited to curbside pickup and delivery only and will not be able to operate outside of the hours of 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. Malls can also remain open for the purpose of curbside pickup but customers will not be able to get their orders from individual stores and will instead have to head to a single designated location inside the mall.
A small number of other business, meanwhile, will be able to open for in-person shopping on an appointment-only basis at 25 per cent capacity, including telecommunication stores that sell cell phones, businesses that sell motor vehicles and boards, optical stores that sell prescription eyewear, rental and leasing services and safety supply stores.
The Ford government will also allow in-person shopping at garden stores but only at 25 per cent capacity.
“Evidence suggests that large, congregate workplaces are the source of COVID-19 spread—not small shops, salons, restaurants or gyms. Yet the government continues to shut down small businesses, some of which are still facing North America’s longest lockdowns,” Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses President Dan Kelly said in a statement issued following the announcement. “Yes, we face different challenges than we did a year ago, but we also have new tools and more information. It’s time for a new strategy that includes rapid testing, targeted vaccination for essential workers and capacity limits.”
Case counts more than tripled through March
Ontario’s daily COVID-19 case growth more than tripled through the month of March, leading to record-high hospital ICU occupancy of more than 500 by early April.
Ontario’s science table released new modelling last week, which suggested that Ontario could reduce its case counts from more than 3,000 a day to between 1,000 and 1,500 by the end of April with a four-week stay-at-home order
But the Ford government initially resisted using the blunt tool with Health Minister Christine Elliott telling reporters last week that her government wanted to avoid repeating the “tremendous ill effect” that the stay-at-home order had on the mental health of residents when it was issued in January.
“I am listening to health and science and I have listened to (Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. (David) Williams from day one but even the people that were showing us the charts, the ICU (occupancy) has taken off even beyond what they told us,” Ford said on Wednesday in response to a question regarding why he didn’t act sooner. “This is moving rapidly, hour by hour, day by day and a decision last week doesn’t represent a decision today. We acted immediately as soon as I found out that the ICU capacity was moving rapidly.”
NDP slams Ford for lifting restrictions in March
The stay-at-home order represents a significant pivot from last month when the Ford government chose to loosen a number of restrictions.
At one point it even allowed bar and restaurant patios to reopen in Toronto, only to order their closure two weeks later.
Then last week case counts started to surge and the Ford government shifted course, invoking its so-called “emergency brake” in all 34 public health units.
But experts continued to criticize the government for not doing more and over the weekend the medical officers of health for Toronto, Peel and Ottawa wrote a joint letter to Williams pleading with him to put another stay-at-home order in place.
“This is where everybody knew we were going to be. I think we all saw what was coming and now it is here and it certainly did not have to come to this. In fact our premier marched us right into this lockdown or this stay-at-home order with his eyes wide open and the lockdown we are now facing for the next 28 days or so is completely Doug Ford’s making,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. “We all saw experts warning the premier time and time again, warning him that protections shouldn’t be lifted quickly. Back in February the modelling was clear that we were going to end up in a very scary situation with the variants of concern and here we are.”