Manning the Omicron battle stations and Israel's travel ban: In The News for Dec. 20

·10 min read

In The News is a roundup of stories from The Canadian Press designed to kickstart your day. Here is what's on the radar of our editors for the morning of Dec. 20 ...

What we are watching in Canada ...

UNDATED — Canada's battle to contain the Omicron variant continues on multiple fronts today, with three provinces reintroducing public health restrictions and a fourth expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

British Columbia and Quebec are both capping capacity at bars and restaurants at 50 per cent as of today, while Newfoundland and Labrador has limited bars to 50 per cent and restaurants to 75 per cent with physical distancing in effect.

B.C. is also limiting indoor social gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

Ontario, meanwhile, is expanding COVID-19 vaccine booster eligibility to all adults, provided it's been at least three months since they received their second dose.

That province introduced similar public health restrictions Sunday, with capacity limits and reduced hours at restaurants and bars.

Canada reported thousands of new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend as the Omicron variant continued its rapid spread.

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Also this ...

OTTAWA — Anthony Rota didn't relish being the first Speaker in more than a century to publicly rebuke a veteran civil servant for doing what he believed was his legally required duty.

But as Speaker of the House of Commons, it fell to Rota to do the bidding of the combined opposition parties last June after they joined forces to order the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada to be hauled before the bar of the House.

Iain Stewart stood impassively at the brass rail at the entrance to the Commons while Rota reprimanded him for his repeated refusal to comply with House orders to turn over unredacted documents related to the firing of two scientists at Canada's highest security laboratory.

Rota admits it was not something he enjoyed, likening it to a parent about to punish a child who says "this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you."

Rota, a Liberal M-P, was named as respondent when the Liberal government subsequently applied to Federal Court to keep the documents under wraps on the grounds that disclosure would be "injurious to international relations or national defence or national security."

Nevertheless, he says he was perfectly comfortable doing his duty as Speaker to defend the long-held principle that the House of Commons can order the production of any documents it sees fit, regardless of national security or other laws.

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What we are watching in the U.S. ...

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin all but delivered a death blow to President Joe Biden's $2 trillion domestic initiative ,throwing his party’s agenda into jeopardy, infuriating the White House and leaving angry colleagues desperate to salvage what’s left of a top priority.

The West Virginia senator’s brazen announcement, delivered on “Fox News Sunday” after only a cursory heads-up to the president’s staff, potentially derails not only Biden’s “Build Back Better Act,” but sparks fresh questions over passing voting rights legislation and potentially other significant bills that would require his vote in the 50-50 Senate.

Republicans heralded Manchin for a maverick move in joining all GOP senators now halting Biden’s big social services and climate change package. But progressive Democrats mercilessly portrayed Manchin as a deal-breaker who failed to keep his word, and even moderates heaped on criticism after months of talks. Whether the senator, a lifelong Democrat, is making a definitive break from his party also became part of the discussion.

“We knew he would do this,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, a leader of House progressives, said Manchin can no longer say “he is a man of his word.”

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Also this ...

WILMINGTON — The White House's top medical adviser says the COVID-19 omicron variant is “just raging around the world."

And President Joe Biden is planning on Tuesday to give what his press secretary says is “a stark warning of what the winter will look like” for unvaccinated Americans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci says “the real problem” for the U.S. hospital system is that “we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated.”

The prospect of a winter chilled by a wave of coronavirus infections is a severe reversal from the optimism projected by Biden months ago when he suggested the country would be back to normal by this Christmas.

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What we are watching in the rest of the world ...

JERUSALEM — Israeli ministers today agreed to ban travel to Canada, the United States, and eight other countries amid the rapid, global spread of the omicron variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office announced the decision following a Cabinet vote.

The rare move to red-list the U.S. comes amid rising coronavirus infections in Israel and marks a change to pandemic practices between the two nations with close diplomatic relations. The U.S. will join a growing list of European countries and other destinations to which Israelis are barred from traveling, and from which returning travelers must remain in quarantine.

A parliamentary committee is expected to give the measure final approval. Once authorized, the travel ban will take effect at midnight Wednesday morning.

Israel has seen a surge in new cases of the more infectious coronavirus variant in recent weeks, and began closing its borders and restricting travel in late November. Foreign nationals are not allowed to enter, and all Israelis arriving from overseas are required to quarantine — including people who are vaccinated.

Other countries that were approved to be added to the travel ban starting Wednesday are Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.

In a prime-time address on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged parents to vaccinate their children, declaring that the country’s “fifth wave” of coronavirus infections had begun.

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Also this ...

MANILA — The death toll following the strongest typhoon to batter the Philippines this year has climbed to more than 200, with 52 other people still missing.

At its strongest, the typhoon packed sustained winds of 195 kilometres per hour and gusts of up to 270 kph before it blew out Friday into the South China Sea.

The toll is expected to increase because several towns and villages remained out of reach due to downed communications, power outages and clogged roads, although massive repairs and clean-up efforts were underway with the improved weather.

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In sports ...

The NHL has postponed any cross-border games through the Dec. 23 start of the holiday break amid the crush of COVID-19 cases in the league, and the chance of the NHL's presence at the Beijing Olympics appears to be dwindling.

Meanwhile the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens paused all team activities until Dec. 26.

The cross-border decision, made jointly by the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association, was "due to the concern about cross-border travel and, given the fluid nature of federal travel restrictions," the league said in release Sunday. It goes into effect today.

Sunday's statement also said that, given the disruption the pandemic has already created in the regular-season schedule, with 27 games postponed as of Saturday, and at least 12 more through Dec. 23, there is concern about the Olympics.

"(With) the continued uncertainty caused by the ongoing COVID pandemic, the NHL and NHLPA are actively discussing the matter of NHL Player participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, and expect to be in a position to announce a final determination in the coming days," the statement said.

In a separate statement Sunday night, the league said the Maple Leafs' training facilities would be closing. The league and players' association will determine when to re-open them "in the coming days."

The Leafs have seven players and two coaches in COVID protocol.

The Canadiens also announced a pause of activities "as a preventive measure." Montreal winger Artturi Lehkonen was placed in protocols on Saturday, and Laurent Dauphin was added on Sunday.

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In entertainment ...

TORONTO — Mirvish Productions says the North American première of “Leopoldstadt” in Toronto has been cancelled.

The eagerly awaited play by Tom Stoppard was expected to be at the Princess of Wales Theatre between Jan. 22 and March 13.

A statement from David Mirvish says the play was cancelled because of the emergence of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

The play was a much lauded and sold-out engagement at London's Wyndham's Theatre.

David Mirvish says in a statement that the “sudden arrival” of the Omicron variant has “made it impossible” for him to fulfil his dream of presenting “Leopoldstadt” in Toronto.

He says the play greatly moved him when he saw it in January 2020 at its first preview performance in England.

Non-subscription patrons who hold tickets to “Leopoldstadt” will be contacted about their options for exchanges to other shows and refunds.

"I always knew the financial risks involved in bringing this extraordinary production here, and I was happy to take them if it meant that ‘Leopoldstadt’ could be seen by Toronto audiences. That’s how much I believe in the power of this very special play,” Mirvish said in a statement Sunday.

“By programming it in 2022, almost two years from the start of the pandemic, we thought we would be protected from the vagaries of COVID-19 and would be able to present the play in Toronto in a relatively safe environment.”

But he says the new variant and capacity restrictions announced last week by the Ontario government, as well the non-essential travel advisory from the federal government with looming border closings and quarantines expected, have complicated logistics.

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ICYMI ...

UNDATED — Experts are calling for respirators, such as N95s, to become the new masking standard to curb the spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr, who studies viruses in the air, says respirators offer far more protection than a surgical mask, both to the wearer and others around them.

Marr says the main difference comes down to fit — respirators are designed to form a seal around the face, while medical masks often leave gaps that allow virus particles to seep through.

Marr says she was shocked when she recently boarded a bus in Lake Louise, Alta., and was asked to take off her N95 respirator and put on a surgical mask, comparing the request to substituting a seatbelt with a piece of rope.

A number of Canadian social media users have reported running into similar policies at hospitals and other health-care settings.

Public Health Ontario has updated its guidelines to allow health workers caring for patients who could have COVID-19 to use respirators in settings where surgical masks had previously been the standard.

The interim recommendations also say N95s are an acceptable alternative to surgical masks for people visiting patient rooms and long-term care homes.

University of Toronto infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said health authorities need to go further to encourage the use of N95 respirators across indoor public settings.

Furness said this campaign should include efforts to help Canadians find the type of respirator that best fits their face, likening the process to trying on jeans.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2021

The Canadian Press

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