Science table comes out against COVID-19 restrictions that discourage safe outdoor activity
A sign advising users of a Vaughan playground that it has been closed to limit the spread of COVID-19 is shown. (City of Vaughan)
Published Tuesday, April 20, 2021 2:46PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, April 20, 2021 3:59PM EDT
A group of scientists advising the Ford government says that Ontario “needs stronger measures to control the pandemic” but it is stressing that any policies that discourage safe outdoor activity “will not control COVID-19 and will disproportionately harm children and those who do not have access to their own greenspace.”
The Ford government ordered the closure of a long list of recreational amenities on Friday but reversed course one day later and made an exception for playgrounds following widespread public outcry.
However, despite the pivot most recreational amenities do remain off limits, including park benches, basketball courts, tennis courts and soccer and baseball fields, and anyone found using them could be issued a $750 fine.
In a report released on Tuesday, Ontario’s science table said that there is a need for additional restrictions amid surging case counts and record hospitalizations that have “hospitals buckling.”
But the panel said that the Ford government should be “clearly encouraging safe outdoor activities” and “allowing small groups of people from different households to meet outside with masking and two-metre distancing.”
It said that the Ford government needs to focus on “public health guidance that works” and that means “Ontarians can’t gather indoors with people from outside their household” but can spend time with each other outdoors, where the risk of transmissions is extremely low.
That would seem to go against current restrictions prohibiting anyone from gathering with anyone else from outside of their household.
“Policies that discourage safe outdoor activity will not control COVID-19 and will disproportionately harm children and those who do not have access to their own greenspace, especially those living in crowded conditions,” the report warns.
Limit essential workplaces
The Ford government has imposed escalating restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 on three consecutive Fridays but has been criticized for not doing more to address the spread of the virus in essential workplaces.
In a statement provided to CTV News Toronto on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the government has “continuously incorporated” data and feedback from independent groups like the science table into its analysis but ultimately follows the advice of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.
The spokesperson did not explicitly address the government’s reasoning for placing limits on outdoor activities but said that generally its recent efforts to curb the transmission of COVID-19 have been rooted in a desire to reduce mobility.
“One key difference between Wave One and Wave Three of the virus has been increased mobility patterns. This, paired with more contagious variants of COVID-19, is especially concerning because we know one of the direct determinants of spread is how much people move around. We have learned from other jurisdictions around the world such as Australia that limitations on mobility work to control the pandemic,” the spokesperson said. “That’s why Ontario’s enhanced restrictions are intended to limit mobility and discourage gatherings where Ontarians are coming into close contact with one another, often without masks. This includes restricting travel into Ontario, as well as strengthened public health measures that encourage Ontarians to stay at home as much as possible.”
The report from the science table recommends that the province keep the list of essential workplaces permitted to remain open “as short as possible” and commit to “strictly enforcing COVID-19 safety measures in those places,” including a requirement that workers wear masks indoors at all times.
The report also says that the province should “immediately” allocate as many vaccine doses as possible to hotspot neighbourhoods, vulnerable populations and essential workers.
In a message posted to Twitter following the report’s release, the Ontario Hospital Association called it “a clear, evidence-based roadmap to reduce transmission, protect the health care system, and end the third wave.”
Here are the six overarching policy areas identified by the panel:
- Essential workplaces only
- Paying essential workers to stay home when they are sick, exposed or need time to get vaccinated
- Accelerating the vaccination of essential workers and those who live in hot spots
- Limiting mobility
- Focusing on public health guidance that works
- Keeping people safely connected