As of Wednesday, students will return to virtual learning until at least mid-January and Ontario will be reverting to a modified Step Two of its reopening plan, resulting in the closure of indoor dining, gyms, theatres and lower capacity limits in most other settings.
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford announced that the province will head back into Step Two of its Roadmap to Reopening in response to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant that has caused record-breaking case counts in the past few weeks.
“As you know, like in other provinces and countries around the world, Omicron case counts are rising exponentially across the province. We face a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead. And as we do, virtually everyone in this province will know someone who has been exposed to this virus,” Ford said during a press conference on Monday.
Ford also announced that students will pivot to remote learning on Wednesday until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends and operational considerations.
Most students have been home for the past two weeks for the holiday break.
“I know this isn't the news anyone wants to hear but with the new variant the ground is shifting every single day. The level of absenteeism we're seeing in other sectors tells us with absolute certainty that operating schools, ensuring teachers are on the job and not homesick will be a challenge we cannot overcome in the short-term, “ he said.
The government says schools, however, will be open for certain child care operations, including emergency child care, in-person instruction for students with special education needs, and for staff who are unable to provide instruction from home.
In addition, during this time, the government says free emergency child care will be provided for school- aged children of health-care and other eligible front-line workers.
Step Two measures that come into effect on Wednesday include the closure of indoor dining, gyms, theatres, limiting indoor social gatherings to five people and outdoor gatherings to 10, and 50 per cent capacity limit for weddings, funerals, religious services and retail settings.
Outdoor dining with restrictions, takeout, delivery and drive throughs will still be permitted.
Capacity limits for personal care services, including hair and nail salons, will also be cut to 50 per cent.
The closure of indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities and gyms will also come into effect on Wednesday, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sport leagues. Outdoor facilities are allowed to operate but can not exceed 50 per cent occupancy.
The government says the measures will be in place for at least 21 days until Jan. 26, subject to trends and in consultation with the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
Ford says the closures are necessary to avoid further strain on the health-care system that was seen during the third wave of the pandemic.
“But let me be clear, these (closures) will be targeted and they will be time-limited. The immediate goal of these measures will be to blunt the latest wave so we can ease the pressure on our hospitals and allow more time to deliver these all important booster shots,” Ford said.
“I know this isn't the news anyone wants to hear. But with a new variant, the ground is shifting every single day,” he added.
To further assist the health-care system, as of Wednesday hospitals must pause all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity.
“I know everyone is tired, especially after what was a tough holiday season. But based on the data, emerging evidence on Omicron, and what our hospital partners are experiencing on the ground, these additional time-limited measures are needed to preserve our hospital capacity as we accelerate our booster dose rollout,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said.
Ford says hospitals are facing an “alarming number” of admissions every day as cases continue to skyrocket across the province.
“This is a problem that will only get worse as we confront the looming wave of Omicron. The reality is that people are coming into hospital and leaving soon after, sometimes only staying for a couple days,” Ford said.
“But even so, with Omicron surging across Ontario at a current rate, Ontario health modeling tells us we could be 1000s of beds short in the coming weeks,” he added.
Ontario entered its current stage, Step Three, of the reopening plan in the summer after public health restrictions helped curb the spread of the Delta variant. Step Three allows virtually all businesses to operate with some capacity restrictions.
To help small businesses in the coming month, who have been struggling significantly throughout the pandemic, the government says it is expanding its Business Costs Rebate Program.
Eligible businesses that are required to close or reduce capacity will receive rebate payments for all or a portion of their property tax and energy costs they incur while the measures are in effect.
The government is also providing up to $7.5 billion for a six-month interest-and penalty-free period for businesses to make payments for most provincially administered taxes.
Ford acknowledged that many residents will be upset with the tougher restrictions announced today but says they’re needed to combat Omicron.
“Now these decisions will disappoint people. They will confuse some people and they will anger some people. I understand all those reactions. As premier, these are the hardest decisions I will make but we follow the data. And the fact is this, Omicron spreads like wildfire.”
The latest restrictions come as the province reported 13,578 new coronavirus cases today and a record 18,445 infections on Saturday.
Ford’s 'newest lockdown' was avoidable: Horwath
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that Premier Ford’s “newest lockdown” was avoidable in a statement issued following Monday’s conference.
“We can’t go back in time and reverse Premier Doug Ford’s bad decisions — but we are urging him to take actions right now to effectively take on this crisis— get schools open safely, send reinforcements into health care, and help workers and small businesses make it to the other side of this,” said Horwath.
The opposition leader said that parents were especially “horrified” by the news of the delayed reopening of schools and urged the government to deploy more rapid tests for teachers and students, implement smaller class sizes, establish in-school vaccine clinics with permission from parents, and to make vaccination for all teachers and education workers mandatory.
Similarly, Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said that the newly-announced measures were a result of Ford’s “reckless leadership.”
“Our kids deserve so much better than the constant chaos of Doug Ford’s reckless leadership,” Del Duca said in a statement. “This is another brutal blow to our kids, who were looking forward to their first normal school year of the last three.”
Meanwhile, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of “dithering” while calling for more supports for the province’s health-care system and small business owners.