By ALAN SHACKLETON
From school closures to business lockdowns to long lines of people standing in the cold waiting to be vaccinated, local residents, store and restaurant owners, and politicians are all frustrated by the impact the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is having.
“As soon as the presence of Omicron was announced by South African scientists (in late November of last year), the provincial government could and should have got to work,” Beaches-East York MPP Rima Berns-McGown, of the opposition NDP, told Beach Metro Community News.
“The Ontario government should have got to work ramping up its booster and first/second shot vaccination program, working to ensure every Ontarian had free and ample access to RATs (Rapid Antigen Tests), ensuring there would be N95 masks available for everyone, and making schools safe via smaller classes and better ventilation,” she said.
“Instead, we got excuses and massive line-ups at LCBOs and in malls for the insufficient numbers of RATs they did have available – line-ups that stoked the spread of the infection right before the holidays, at the worst possible time.”
As case numbers of COVID-19, and especially cases of Omicron, began to surge late last month, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said at a press conference on the afternoon of Dec. 30 that the province would be changing the way testing would be done, shortening the amount of isolation time for those testing positive and that schools across the province would be opening classrooms to in-person learning on Wednesday, Jan. 5.
Four days later, on Jan. 3, Premier Doug Ford announced schools would not be opening until Jan. 17 at the earliest and students were being returned to online learning. He also announced restrictions on businesses and number of people allowed to gather at events were being put back in place to stop the spread of Omicron. Those restrictions included the closing of indoor dining or drinking at restaurants and pubs, the closing of gyms and 50 per cent capacity limits at retail stores.
Paul Bieksa, Executive Director of The Beach BIA, said small businesses are being severely impacted by these latest restrictions and are looking to both the provincial and federal governments for help.
“Small businesses have been hit especially hard and should see more direct financial supports,” he told Beach Metro Community News. “Capacity restrictions pose a unique challenge to small business owners with naturally smaller footprints. Our local businesses are weighing cost of opening with the reality they will only have a small number of people in their store that day. It’s these businesses that need both short-term supports and a long-term plan for recovery supported by our government.”
Bieksa said the support of residents making an extra effort to buy from local small businesses will continue to be critically important.
“The Beach community has been incredibly supportive during the pandemic, and we hope this trend continues indefinitely,” he said.
“Torontonians at large can help small businesses by continuing to shop local. This means doing curbside pickup at a small business instead of having a global corporation deliver to you or ordering out from the variety of fantastic restaurants in your neighbourhood. It’s these actions that will ensure you have just as much variety of unique stores and restaurants in the future, all while supporting your neighbours.”
For the many businesses that make up The Beach BIA along Queen Street East between Coxwell Avenue and Neville Park Boulevard, these latest restrictions are yet another COVID-19 pandemic challenge to be dealt with.
“Restaurant/pub owners and small business owners in our BIA have been continually adapting to the restrictions and this is yet another challenge testing their resilience,” said Bieksa.
For Toronto District School Board Ward 16 (Beaches-East York) Trustee Michelle Aarts the last couple days of December and first few days of January have been a whirlwind of changing provincial directives delivered at the last minute, and scrambling to address the concerns of students, parents and school staff members.
“I am really quite angry about the disrespect for education sector staff and families that is inherent in the lack of communication and 11th hour decisions,” she told Beach Metro Community News.
“It adds unnecessary stress and workloads for people who are already exhausted. Late-on-a-Friday announcements are all too common, causing staff and families to work/scramble when they should be attending to their own health and wellbeing.”
She said the board is waiting for more details from the provincial government regarding the planned reopening of schools to in-person learning on Jan. 17.
“It is unclear what additional measures will be provided to (school) boards and schools or even what individual boards will be allowed to purchase/implement on their own,” she said.
There are limited supplies of N95 masks and rapid tests in schools, said Aarts.
Toronto public school board classrooms have been equipped with air (HEPA) filters since the spring of 2021, she said, but did not know if that was the case for other school boards across the province.
“We are still awaiting updates on changes to school-based testing and reporting of cases, contact tracing, etc..,” said Aarts.
“The province has indicated (schools will be closed to in-person learning) until at least Jan. 17 but they have not indicated what conditions would be needed to consider reopening,” she said.
Aarts said many families are facing challenges dealing with their children being at home trying to learn online, and the board is attempting to offer as much support as possible.
“Parents needing childcare or devices (computers) should contact their school principal. The province has enabled emergency childcare and parents can reach out to get that information and contacts. Principals are also coordinating access to devices from the TDSB’s supply.”
The TDSB has publicly called on the province to make the needed short-term and long-term investments in planning and resources to safely reopen schools as soon as possible, said Aarts.
Berns-McGown said the pandemic has been a roller-coaster of emotions for residents since it started in spring of 2020, but the anger and frustration she is hearing now from constituents is at a peak.
“This is pretty much the angriest and most fed up I have seen people. This time around there was absolutely no excuse for the lack of action; the Premier hiding at his cottage while the tsunami was on the way, his cowardly hiding when Dr. Moore had to deliver the bad news about a useless two-day delay in school opening, and the ridiculous New Year’s Eve memo that rather than making schools safe for students and education workers, Ontario schools would simply stop collecting COVID data,” she said.
One bright note through the pandemic, however, has been the outstanding work of Michael Garron Hospital and East Toronto Health Partners.
They have been “truly heroic” organizing and hosting numerous vaccine clinics and working hard to get shots into the arms of those who need them, said Berns-McGown.
“They have consistently gone above and beyond, over and over again, to prioritize the most vulnerable communities and to ensure that everyone gets the care they need and can be vaccinated in ways that work best for them.”
Berns-McGown said she had nothing but “praise and admiration” for the work of Michael Garron Hospital and East Toronto Health Partners. “We in the East End would have been hit so much harder by COVID if not for them,” she said.