TORONTO — Ontario will go into lockdown on Boxing Day in an effort to bring soaring COVID-19 cases under control, a move the province announced Monday after health advisers said thousands of infections could be avoided if tough restrictions were imposed earlier.
The lockdown will shutter all non-essential businesses, ban indoor gatherings, close restaurant dining rooms, and move school classed online for the first week of the new year. It also means Ontarians are advised to stay home as much as possible.
The restrictions will remain in place for southern Ontario until Jan. 23, but will lift for northern Ontario — where there are fewer cases — on Jan. 9.
Premier Doug Ford said the virus is spreading rapidly from areas with a high number of cases to those with fewer cases, and the province needs to preserve capacity in its health-care system.
"This difficult action is without a doubt necessary to save lives and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed in the coming weeks," he said.
"Make no mistake, thousands of lives are at stake right now."
Hours earlier, the province's health advisers said the sooner a "hard lockdown" were implemented, the more new cases could be prevented.
"If we started on Dec. 21, instead of Dec. 28, it plays out significant reductions in cases under almost any scenario," said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province's COVID-19 science advisory table.
Brown added that anything less than a four-week lockdown will not work, based on the experience of other jurisdictions.
Ford defended the decision to wait until Saturday to impose the restrictions, noting that hot spots are already in lockdown.
"We want to give the same opportunities to businesses that haven't experienced lockdown before ... (and) give them the opportunity to get ready to hunker down."
Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton are already in lockdown.
Dr. Naveed Mohammad, CEO of the William Osler Health System that operates hospitals in Peel Region, said people need to act as if the lockdown had already started.
"Until the people of this province realize what each trip out their home risks for themselves and their loved ones, we won't get through this," he said, noting that hospitals in Brampton, Ont., are grappling with capacity issues.
"Please stay home, starting today."
The Ontario Hospital Association, which had called for strict new restrictions, said it was disappointed the lockdown wouldn't take effect sooner.
"The Dec. 26 implementation date sends a confusing message about what (residents) should and shouldn’t do at this crucial moment," said CEO Anthony Dale.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized Ford for delaying the start of the lockdown and accused him of caving to pressure from big-box stores. She urged support for small businesses, workers who needed income support and those who may be facing eviction.
"This lockdown means more people are facing the collapse of their business, the loss of their job, or financial hardship," she said.
Some, however, pushed back against the move.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said his city had been "blindsided" by news of the lockdown, He noted his city had successfully brought its cases down.
"There are simply no facts to support a lockdown in the city of Ottawa," Watson said.
The measure means schools across the province will move to online learning from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8, after which students are to return to in-person classes, depending on location and grade level.
All students in northern Ontario and elementary students in southern Ontario are to return to in-person learning Jan. 11. High school students in southern Ontario are to continue online learning until Jan. 25.
Child-care centres across the province will remain open.
The lockdown also means essential businesses that remain open will have strict capacity limits. Businesses such as restaurants will close to indoor dining, but will be permitted to offer take-out and delivery. Indoor sports facilities, personal care services, including salons, and casinos are all shut.
The province also announced it will offer a grant to some small businesses with a minimum of $10,000 to help offset losses.
The latest virus projections in Ontario indicate the province's ability to control the spread of COVID-19 is "precarious." Data from health advisers concluded that tough lockdowns lasting a month or more could cut the number of daily cases to less than 1,000.
If Ontario's COVID-19 case rate continues to grow between one and three per cent, the province will have 3,000 to 5,000 daily cases by the end of January, it indicates.
It also shows that under all scenarios the province will see 300 intensive care unit beds filled within 10 days — double the 150-bed threshold at which surgeries must be cancelled.
Ontario reported 2,123 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 17 more deaths related to the virus.
Meanwhile, new measures meant to prevent a possible surge of COVID-19 over the holiday period took effect in Nova Scotia on Monday. Indoor gatherings are capped at 10 people and retail stores are required to limit the number of shoppers to 25 per cent of legal capacity.
The restrictions, first announced last week, were became effective as the number of reported active infections dropped to 38.
In Quebec, the government expanded its COVID-19 vaccine distribution network with the opening of new clinics.
Further west, an Alberta judge dismissed an application for an injunction to pause the province's restrictions. Alberta reported 1,240 new infections and nine deaths, and continues to have the highest rate of new cases of any province.
Manitoba reported 167 new cases and four new deaths, while Saskatchewan reported 206 new infections, as well as four more deaths. Nunavut reported three new cases of COVID-19.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said COVID-19 cases are beginning to level off in B.C, but the rate is still too high at 1,667 new cases over three days. There have been another 41 deaths over the same period, and most of them were among seniors at the dozens of long-term care homes where there are outbreaks, Henry said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press