Premier Ford reverses decision to close playgrounds amid backlash
Published Saturday, April 17, 2021 12:11PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, April 17, 2021 3:20PM EDT
The Ontario government has reversed its decision to close playgrounds after the ban was widely criticized, with one Toronto infectious diseases doctor calling the closure of outdoor spaces the wrong move in the fight against COVID-19.
“Our regulations will be amended to allow playgrounds, but gatherings outside will still be enforced. Play outside safely. Parents keep your distance & wear masks if you can’t,” Premier Doug Ford tweeted Saturday afternoon.
The closure of outdoor spaces, including playgrounds, golf courses and basketball courts, was part of the new restrictions announced Friday by the Ford government to combat rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations amid the third wave of the pandemic.
Other restrictions include prohibiting interprovincial travel except for essential purposes, shutting down non-essential construction, and giving police the power to question people who are outside of their homes. The government also walked back on the latter Saturday.
The ban on playgrounds and other outdoor activities left many scratching their heads as evidence has shown that there is a much lower risk of COVID-19 transmission outside.
Infectious diseases specialist at Trillium Health Partners Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti says shutting down outdoor recreational spaces is not the right move to take.
“Right now unfortunately, apart from vaccination and, you know, some stuff in workplaces, there's not a lot of levers left to pull. And you know what you have to do is not make things worse and by, you know, driving people indoors, which is what these new rules will do, it's actually going to make the problem worse,” Chakrabarti told CP24 on Saturday morning.
Ford’s cabinet met late into the night on Thursday and again on Friday morning to consider the new restrictions before announcing them.
When speaking to reporters later on Friday, Ford said there were only a few options left for his government in response to rising infections and all of them come with “a massive cost to people in their lives.”
“I have never shied away from telling you the brutal, honest truth, never shied away from tough decisions and today I am here to do just that. My friends, we are losing the battle between variants and vaccines,” Ford said.
Along with the new measures, Ford extended the current stay-at-home order, which came into effect on Apr. 8, for two more weeks. The order is now set to last until at least May 20.
Chakrabarti says closing outdoor spaces might appear to be a solution but will only cause people to gather indoors instead.
“I call this the visibility bias. When people see people in a park they [say] ‘oh no this is going to be a site of transmission,’ and it's something you can see. But now when you drive all those people indoors, you don't see it anymore, but now there's much more transmission occurring.”
He says people need safe alternatives to avoid congregating indoors and allowing people outdoors is the way to go.
Chakrabarti added that most of the COVID-patients he has treated contracted the virus from indoor settings.
“I've seen so many COVID patients and all of them have the same story. It is heavy, indoor transmission. And that's coming from either a workplace, a high-density workplace in manufacturing or industry, or a family member of that person,” Chakrabarti says.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who sits on Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, agrees with Chakrabarti and says outdoor environments are low-risk and vital for mental and physical health.
"It's just clear that there's very little transmission in outdoor settings. Of course it's not zero per cent but it's a tiny, tiny, tiny risk. And this is the kind of thing where if you can't separate by two metres, put on a mask," Bogoch told CP24.
Meanwhile, another Toronto doctor is saying he will continue to take his children to the playground and is offering to pay anyone's tickets if they are fined for going to a playground.
"I really hope they don't fine people for going to the park with their kids or for going for a walk, or for doing other reasonably safe things that shouldn't be criminalized," Dr. Zac Feilchenfeld told CP24 on Saturday before the government made the changes.
"I know that I'm not likely to get a ticket given who I am, what I look like and where I live, and the least I can do is stand in solidarity with people who might get challenged by police," he added.
Feilchenfeld says Ford's ban on outdoor activities is a big distraction from measures that are actually needed to curb transmission in congregate settings.
A petition to open Ontario playgrounds surfaced online with more than 5,400 people signing as of Saturday at 4 p.m.