TORONTO — Ontario and its largest city appeared at odds Wednesday on how to tackle a spike in COVID-19 in Toronto that local health officials warned could quickly surpass the initial wave of the virus if left unchecked.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford repeatedly voiced his reluctance to temporarily halt indoor dining in restaurants, one of several measures Toronto’s top doctor requested last week in light of the growing community spread of the virus.
Though the province has not yet formally responded to Dr. Eileen de Villa’s proposal, Ford said he believes most restaurant owners are following public health guidelines and shouldn’t be penalized due to a few “bad actors.”
“We just can’t shut down people’s livelihoods quickly with a broad brush,” he said. “We have to be very, very careful when we’re messing with people’s lives like this.”
De Villa, meanwhile, stressed the need for swift action as she released new projections suggesting that if the current rate of COVID-19 transmission is maintained, cases could surpass the city’s April peak in the next few weeks.
“If the virus is left unchecked, heading into November, things can get much worse. Infections continue to rise week over week, peaking between early March and early May 2021,” she told an afternoon news conference.
According to the public health unit, the city’s current reproductive number — which represents how many people, on average, each COVID-19 case will infect — is 1.2, meaning the outbreak is growing.
De Villa said the province’s calculations place that number even higher, at 1.4.
A reproductive number of 1.0 means the outbreak is stable, while anything below that indicates it will “slowly die out,” she said.
“We have been trying our very, very best to manage this balance between reopening and recognizing that that reopening would give rise to increased social interaction between people and therefore increase the risk of COVID-19 activity,” she said.
While there are no “simple answers,” experience from other jurisdictions shows earlier intervention reduces the impact on the community and the length of any restrictions, she said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city and province are working together to “square things” when it comes to dealing with the situation.
In an open letter released Friday, de Villa called for the province to enact tighter restrictions for Toronto over a month, including a ban on indoor dining and other indoor recreational activities. She said provincial action was required because she received legal advice that it would be “unprecedented” for a local medical officer of health to enact such broad changes.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said he would review her proposal.
The province reported 583 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and one new death due to the virus. Health Minister Christine Elliott said 173 of the new cases were in Toronto, 121 in Ottawa, 75 in York Region, and 70 in Peel Region.
The province said it has a backlog of 55,413 tests, and has conducted 43,277 tests since the last daily report.
Meanwhile, Ontario is set to make a pandemic measure that allowed restaurants and bars to deliver alcohol permanent.
Associate Minister of Small Business Prabmeet Sarkaria said the government is exploring ways to change laws surrounding the delivery of alcohol before they expire at the end of the year.
The change is part of new legislation to help small businesses that have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarkaria said the bill will also make temporary measures that allowed 24-hour delivery to pharmacies and grocery stores permanent.
The government said it will provide grants of up to $1,000 for small businesses to buy personal protective equipment.
The grants will be available to businesses with fewer than 10 employees and can also be used to make pandemic-related safety changes such as installing Plexiglas barriers.