Ontario reopening must be cautious because of variants, mayor of hard-hit city says

·4 min read

TORONTO — The mayor of a community that was hit hard by a COVID-19 variant outbreak is urging people to continue following public health measures when a stay-at-home order lifts for most of the province on Tuesday.

Barrie, Ont., Mayor Jeff Lehman said Monday that his city has seen how quickly more contagious variants can spread and he's concerned the government's economic reopening is coming too soon.

"We're gonna have to be fast to respond if there are issues," Lehman said in an interview.

"Honestly, when I talked to people, they would rather be locked down for a week or two more now in winter than ... in April."

An outbreak involving the COVID-19 variant first identified in the U.K. has led to the deaths of 70 residents at the Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie.

The city is among communities in 27 Ontario public health units that will see pandemic measures loosen on Tuesday as those regions move back to the province's tiered restrictions system. Where a region is placed in the system depends on local case counts.

Three hot spots in the Greater Toronto Area and North Bay, Ont., will remain under the stay-at-home order for another week.

The province's reopening plan has been criticized in light of recent projections showing a likely third wave of COVID-19 lies ahead if strict measures aren't in place.

Niagara Region will be the only one in the strictest grey-lockdown category, which will now allow businesses to open at 25 per cent capacity.

Barrie will reenter the system in the red category - the second-most strict level, along with several other communities.

Lehman said he worries people who have grown weary of strict measures will stop obeying all public health rules once restrictions ease.

"The message I'm trying to get out is, please do not change your behaviour," he said. "Reopening on Tuesday does not mean now it's OK to have a party. It is not."

The mayor of Sarnia, Ont., said he was worried residents are finding the province's messaging on public health measures contradictory.

Mayor Mike Bradley, whose city will be placed in the less-restrictive orange category, noted that the provincial government is letting some non-essential businesses reopen, while also telling people to stay home as much as possible.

"My read of the community is that there is an overwhelming desire for businesses to reopen and for people to have more social interaction and that will overrule the 'don't go out message,'" he said.

Bradley said he worried the province was easing up on the rules too early and that could lead to another lockdown. Cases in the region have been declining since the Jan. 14 stay-at-home order was imposed.

Premier Doug Ford cautioned people Friday that moving back to the colour-coded restrictions system doesn't mean all public health advice no longer applies.

"We're doing a little bit of a balance and letting small businesses open up very, very cautiously," he said.

The president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said members of his group are approaching the reopening with mixed emotions.

Dan Kelly said many businesses in the province are still subject to some form of restrictions and that will continue to hurt their ability to stay afloat.

"For much of the province, this is basically replacing a provincewide lockdown with a regional lockdown," he said. "This is not going to move businesses on a pathway to profitability."

The president of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said she thinks even a gradual reopening of the province at the same time that more contagious variants of COVID-19 are emerging presents great risk.

"If we had done it one step at a time, and reopened three weeks after schools, we could have seen the impact that had," Doris Grinspun said, referring to the resumption of in-person learning after a stretch of online classes.

She also worried that dealing with any potential resurgence in cases could distract the province from its vaccine rollout.

"I am very concerned that come March, when we will have 1.2 million doses of the vaccine, that we will not be ready to give them to people 24/7," she said.

The province has said it will use an "emergency brake" measure to move regions back into lockdown quickly if necessary.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press