Soaring COVID-19 case total pushes Ottawa to cut capacity at local businesses

·3 min read
A pedestrian walks past a mural adorning the side of a restaurant in Ottawa's Little Italy neighbourhood in October. Restaurants and bars are among the establishments that will be limited to 50 per cent capacity. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)
A pedestrian walks past a mural adorning the side of a restaurant in Ottawa's Little Italy neighbourhood in October. Restaurants and bars are among the establishments that will be limited to 50 per cent capacity. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)

New capacity limits and physical distancing requirements will soon come into effect for many Ottawa businesses as the city faces a soaring COVID-19 case rate likely driven by the Omicron variant.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, announced Friday afternoon she had issued a letter of instruction directing many businesses to limit capacity to 50 per cent as of Monday.

Shortly after, the province also unveiled new capacity rules, meaning many of the businesses targeted in Etches's letter would actually have to shift gears on Sunday instead.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) reported 309 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, only the seventh time the daily tally has been above 300 — with the rest all occurring during the middle of last spring's third wave.

As of Friday, only 18 cases had been confirmed to be Omicron, although nearly 200 more are presumed to be tied to the highly transmissible variant.

Wide swath of businesses affected

The capacity limits announced by OPH apply to:

  • Restaurants, bars and other food and drink establishments.

  • Convention centres and meeting or event spaces.

  • Personal care services like barbershops, salons and tattoo parlours.

  • Indoor sports and recreation facilities, plus indoor clubhouses affiliated with outdoor recreation facilities.

  • Concert venues, theatres and cinemas.

  • Museums, galleries and similar attractions.

  • Casinos, bingo halls and other gaming establishments.

  • Indoor fairs and festivals.

  • Faith-based organizations and places of worship.

The letter of instruction also includes other more targeted restrictions for bars and restaurants, like requiring patrons to remain seated and limiting the number of diners to six per table.

In cases where the province's directives differ from what OPH has announced — for instance, Ontario's guidelines exclude religious institutions, specifically mention gyms and grocery stores, and allow for more people to eat together at one table — the stricter rules apply.

The province is also reducing indoor social gathering limits from 25 people to 10, and outdoor gatherings from 100 people to 25.

Etches cited projections by Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table that the province is on "the worst possible curve" and said acting swiftly was the best possible way to stave off an impending wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

"As the science advisory table stated yesterday, waiting to take action means waiting until it's too late," she said.

The rules are legally binding under the Reopening Ontario Act. Bylaw officers will be ready to enforce the restrictions Monday, city officials said.

'Extremely difficult decision'

In addition to the new restrictions, Etches said OPH is also urging local businesses to allow any employees who could work remotely to do so.

Residents should keep gatherings as small as possible, avoid large crowds, and suspend participation in indoor sports, she said.

"It was an extremely difficult decision to issue a letter of instruction at this time, knowing all that people have been through. And there are significant impacts for businesses and individuals with this measure," Etches said.

"We know it will cause additional stress during one of the busiest times of the year."

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC

Testing 'overwhelmed'

Since the sharp rise in cases has also "overwhelmed" local testing resources, Etches urged people with symptoms to assume they have COVID-19 and self-isolate — as should those living in the same household, regardless of their vaccination status.

With Omicron, those symptoms include fever, muscle aches, cough, a sore throat and a runny nose, she said.

While OPH is striving to increase its ability to deliver third vaccine doses — which will be available to Ontarians 18 and older as of Monday — Etches tried to temper people's immediate expectations and asked for vaccine-seekers to remain patient.

"The reality is, on Monday we may not have a lot of new appointments for the newly eligible 18-plus population," Etches said. "There may be no or very few appointments available."

The problem isn't a shortage of mRNA vaccines, Etches said, but rather that immunizations can only be done by registered health professionals — and there are only so many of those in Ontario to go around.

OPH is in talks with the province about "novel approaches" to increasing the pool of immunizers, she added.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting