By ALI RAZA, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Ontario government has declared a state of emergency and issued stay-at-home orders for all residents in the province effective Thursday, Jan. 14, in response to a growing number of cases of COVID-19.
The number of cases has accelerated significantly since the holidays, and the ongoing lockdown for public health units like Toronto and Peel has done little to reduce the spread. As of Jan. 14, there are 29,307 active cases and 1,657 people have been hospitalized, including patients in intensive care units.
As of Jan. 13, a total of 228,310 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Ontario. The total number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in early last year is 5,189.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 12, Premier Doug Ford announced the emergency and stay-at-home orders citing a threat of collapse of the province’s hospital system and risks posed to long-term care homes.
“The latest modelling data shows that Ontario is in a crisis,” Ford said. “With the current trends, our hospital ICUs will be overwhelmed in a few short weeks with unthinkable consequences.”
The orders are province wide, unlike previous lockdowns which only targeted certain public health units.
ICU occupancy by COVID-19 patients is more than 400 beds and is projected to reach 1,000 beds by early February. The number of COVID-19 related deaths in the province per day are expected to double from 50 to 100 by February as well.
“We need people to only go out only for essential trips to pick up groceries or to go to medical appointments,” Ford said.
The announcement comes as a new, more infectious strain of COVID-19 originating in the UK has been found in Ontario.
The exact rules of the province-wide lockdown were received as unclear by local politicians and residents, who in East Toronto, have been under lockdown for months now.
Specific rules regarding schools, workplaces, and enforcement are confusing, they say.
“Speaking candidly there isn’t a lot of clarity on the details about the emergency order – we heard this from the Mayor, Chief Pegg, and Dr. de Villa too,” Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford said.
“I share a lot of the frustration I’ve been hearing about the lack of detail and changing messages. I have the same questions about how we got here, why it has taken so long since the second wave started getting out of control to take a stronger stance, and how exactly the details of these new orders will actually stop the spread.”
Given the confusion and frustration, Bradford implored residents to stay home, but remained cognizant of the growing toll on the community.
“It’s a tough blow for all of us,” he said. “Frontline workers, families, businesses, we’re all feeling the effects, and the toll on mental health is going to be high.”
At the provincial level, Beaches-East York MPP Rima Berns-McGown says people are “losing it” and “for good reason.”
In a rebuke of the Ford government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Berns-McGown said lockdowns, restrictions, and further orders will remain ineffective until people receive the social supports required.
“Asking people to make additional sacrifices when you’re not willing to put the structural pieces in to make a difference, makes no sense,” she said.
Berns-McGown notes that public health doctors have repeatedly said that these structural supports are necessary to beat the pandemic. Supports include paid sick days, rent relief, small business support, and further assistance for vulnerable members of society.
“If you don’t get paid sick days, enough to recover, people will go to work sick,” she said. “Because if they don’t they’re in danger of losing their home or not being able to feed their family.”
She also noted that while the province declared the emergency, the Landlord and Tenant Board continued processing evictions. The Ontario government press release regarding the emergency orders addressed evictions.
“Ontario is exploring all options available to put a temporary residential evictions moratorium in place, and will have more to day in the coming days,” it read.
In response, Berns-McGown said “it makes it sound like they’re doing something when they haven’t and they could have.”
In December, when announcing a lockdown for Toronto and Peel, Ford announced the Ontario Small Business Support Grant which would offer a minimum of $10,000 to a maximum of $20,000 to struggling businesses meeting specific criteria. As of Jan. 14, applications have yet to open on the provincial website.
Regarding sick days, the Ontario press release says employees who become infected with COVID-19 can receive federally funded paid sick leave of up to $500 per week, for a maximum of two weeks. It makes no mention of any provincially funded paid sick leave for workers.
“There will be a time for us to fight this battle and everyone from elected officials to frontline leaders will be held accountable for the decisions they made,” Bradford said. “But right now we have to focus on fighting this [COVID-19] together.”
Fighting the virus involves knowing details about the latest provincial lockdown, Berns-McGown said.
“They’re not being clear on what essential is,” she said. “Instead, they’re leaving it up to the people, leaving it up to the police to decide.”
She fears that allowing law enforcement to discern between what’s allowed and what’s not during the state of emergency increases the chances that members of BIPOC community or low income residents will be disproportionately harassed or fined.
“It’s deeply problematic on so many levels,” Berns-McGown said. “This is what happens when you put the onus on individual behaviour and enforcement instead of providing structural social supports.”
From the Beach Metro News’ best interpretation of the province’s new public health rules, for residents in East Toronto, the state of emergency and stay-at-home orders means they cannot leave home unless it is for essential purposes of groceries, healthcare, exercise, or work.
On Jan. 14, the province released information with a list of essential reasons to go out. The link to the info was sent as a blanket warning to all smartphones with a message that a stay-at-home order is in effect.
According the province’s official stay-at-home order, residents cannot leave home, unless:
Working or volunteering where the nature of work requires the individual to leave the residence, and when the employer has determined that the work requires attendance at the workplace
Attending school or a post-secondary institution
Attending, obtaining, or providing child care
Receiving or providing training or educational services
Obtaining food, beverages, and personal care items
Obtaining goods and services necessary for health and safety
Obtaining goods and services necessary for safe operation of households and businesses
Attending an appointment at a business or place permitted to be open under the Stage 1 order
Obtaining services from a financial institution or cheque cashing service
Obtaining government services, social services, mental health services or addiction support services
Delivering goods or providing care to an individual requiring assistance
Taking a child to a child’s parent or guardian
Taking a member of the individual’s household to any place the member of the household is permitted to go
Doing anything necessary to respond or avoid imminent risk to health and safety
Exercising, including walking, or using a permitted outdoor recreational amenity
Attending a place required by law in relation to justice administration
Exercising an Aboriginal or treaty right
Travelling to another residence of the individual if the individual intends to be at residence for less than 24 hours or at least 14 days
Attending a gathering for the purpose of a wedding, a funeral, a religious service, if permitted under Stage 1 order
If the individual lives alone, gathering with members of one other household
Obtaining goods and services necessary for health and safety of an animal
Obtaining animal food or supplies
Doing anything necessary to respond or avoid imminent risk of health or safety of an animal
Walking or exercising an animal
The province is continuing its immunization campaign to vaccinate Ontarians with the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Jan. 12, only 130,000 doses have been given.
But locally, Michael Garron Hospital has administered vaccines to more than 2,500 long-term care and priority retirement home residents in East Toronto, 1,993 staff and essential caregivers at long-term care and priority retirement homes, 1,810 members of MGH staff, and 2,937 staff members at eight other hospitals across the Greater Toronto Area.
While the new provincial emergency rules appear confusing, Bradford reminded local residents that the community has kept a relatively lower case count.
“I’m proud of the way our community has shown up for each other,” he said. “They say there’s nothing like a crisis to reveal our true self, and this one is showing exactly the strength and selflessness this community is made of.”
Ali Raza is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.