Ontario rejects regional phase-outs of COVID-19 restrictions

Despite sharp differences in the impact of COVID-19 in different parts of Ontario, the Ford government is rejecting a region-by-region approach to loosening emergency restrictions.

The infection rates in Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor-Essex, and Peel and York regions are all five to six times higher than the rates in northeastern and northwestern Ontario, according to the latest per capita data provided by the province.

The medical officer of health in the Kingston area — where the proportion of cases is less than one quarter of the provincial average — wrote to Premier Doug Ford this week asking him to consider a regional approach to easing restrictions

But Ford has now ruled out any geographic differences in phasing out pandemic measures.    

In Quebec, restrictions will be lifted last in Montreal, which has been far harder hit by the novel coronavirus than the rest of the province. Businesses outside the Montreal area have already been allowed to reopen and elementary schools in the rest of Quebec are set to resume classes May 11, two weeks before any restrictions are due to be phased out in Montreal.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford addresses the province’s daily COVID-19 news conference from Queen’s Park on Wednesday, May 6. (Steve Russell/The Canadian Press – Pool Photo)

Alberta will ease restrictions in various parts of the province on a timeline tailored to the local situation, said Premier Jason Kenney.

“We will be looking through a local lens at how quickly we reopen aspects of the economy to ensure that we are doing it very prudently,” Kenney said Thursday, noting that the impact of COVID-19 has not been felt equally across Alberta.

British Columbia initially considered a regional approach, with a far lower infection rate in the province’s north. But B.C. announced Wednesday there will be no regional differences in its phase-out timeline.

“This virus doesn’t recognize our geopolitical boundaries so we have to be careful and take these precautions across the province,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, the chief medical officer of health in B.C.

Ontario likewise weighed whether to phase out restrictions more quickly in some regions. Two weeks ago, Ford acknowledged the regional variation in infection rates and Finance Minister Rod Phillips said those were being taken into consideration as the government prepared its framework for reopening economic activity.

A cyclist takes a break alone by a row of Muskoka chairs next to Dow’s Lake in Ottawa, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, on Sunday, April 12. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

But this week, Ford firmly nixed the notion of treating any part of the province differently from the rest.

“The answer’s no,” Ford said in reaction to the request from Kingston. “We have to run the province as one unit.”

People across Ontario must “stick together, and together we’ll get through it,” the premier told the daily televised COVID-19 news briefing on Wednesday.

“If they loosen up restrictions in one area, guess where all the people from Toronto and the GTA are going, if they want to go have dinner? They’re all going flock to Kingston, and I don’t think that’d be very fair for that jurisdiction to have everyone coming in in one shot like that.”

“We’re asking the province to consider a regional approach to the easing of restrictions in places where the COVID-19 situation is evolving differently than other parts of the province,” reads the letter from Kingston’s top public health doctor, Kieran Michael Moore.

It was jointly signed by the city’s mayor and the municipal leaders of the neighbouring counties of Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.

Most commercial flights into and out of the Greater Sudbury airport have been cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Erik White/CBC )

“If we look at the road that’s ahead of us, having to live with this virus for the next year and a half, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best,” Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson said in a phone interview Thursday.

The regional differences in the impact of the novel coronavirus are most apparent when comparing northern Ontario with the rest of the province. The seven public health units north of Muskoka — an area with a population of nearly 800,000 people — currently report a combined total of just 42 active cases of COVID-19.

No long-term care home in northern Ontario has had a cumulative total of more than seven confirmed cases.

Provincial figures show the hardest-hit public health units tend to be in Ontario’s biggest cities, but that tendency is not absolute.

While Toronto has the highest per capita number of confirmed cases among Ontario’s 34 public health units, the second- and third-hardest hit are the predominantly rural areas of Leeds, Grenville & Lanark and Haldimand-Norfolk. Their high per-capita infection rates are largely because of big outbreaks in long-term care and retirement homes.

Hamilton’s per-population caseload is roughly half what it is in Ottawa and Windsor-Essex.

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