Ontario is moving schools online for at least two weeks, temporarily closing indoor dining and gyms, and pausing non-urgent medical procedures as it faces record-high case counts that, according to public health officials, threaten to overwhelm the province’s health-care system.
Premier Doug Ford announced the changes at a morning news conference Monday. He was joined by his ministers of health and finance, as well as Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and the CEO of Ontario Health.
The new restrictions are part of a modified version of Step Two of the province’s Roadmap to Reopen, which was first implemented earlier last year.
“Our public health experts tell us we could see hundreds of thousands of cases every day,” Ford said of the ongoing surge of new COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.
He said that this could mean hospitals end up thousands of beds short.
“If we don’t do everything possible to get this variant under control, the results could be catastrophic. It is a risk I cannot take.”
The province announced all publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning starting Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17.
Ford said the decision to close schools, a move that would last at least two weeks, was taken because the province couldn’t guarantee schools would be fully staffed with so many teachers expected to be off sick.
The move comes after last Thursday’s announcement when Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the return to school date would be pushed by two days to Wednesday but would still be in-person. Moore said the province wanted to give schools extra time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units.
Though they were asked repeatedly by reporters on Monday, provincial officials did not provide a list of any other specific steps they plan to take in order to ensure a safe return to school on Jan. 17, 2022.
Indoor dining closed, new capacity limits
The new restrictions announced today also include:
- Indoor dining at restaurants and bars closed.
- Only outdoor dining, takeout, drive-through, and delivery are permitted.
- Social gathering limits were reduced to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors.
- Retail stores, malls, public libraries, and personal care services are limited to 50 percent capacity.
- Saunas, steam rooms, and oxygen bars closed.
- Capacity at weddings, funerals, and religious services is limited to 50 percent capacity per room.
- Outdoor services must have two-meter distancing between all attendees.
- Employees must work remotely unless their work requires them to be on site.
- Gyms and other indoor recreational sports facilities closed, except athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and certain professional and elite sports leagues.
- Outdoor facilities are permitted but with a 50 percent capacity limit on spectators.
Museums, galleries, zoos, science centers, historic sites, amusement parks, festivals and other attractions closed.
- Outdoor establishments are allowed with restrictions and capacity limits.
- Indoor meeting and event spaces are closed with limited exceptions, except those with outdoor spaces, which can operate with restrictions.
- The new measures will kick in on Wednesday, Jan. 5 at 12:01 a.m. and will remain in effect for at least 21 days, until Jan. 26.
New modeling from Public Health Ontario shows that the Omicron variant could eventually overwhelm the entire health system.
The projections suggest hospitalizations could peak by the end of this month, but health officials noted that tightened public health measures will blunt the rate of Omicron’s spread.
Non-urgent surgeries paused
As part of the modified step two of the province’s re-opening plan, Moore reinstated a directive ordering hospitals to pause all non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care capacity.
That measure had been taken during earlier waves in the pandemic, contributing to a large backlog of procedures the health system had been working to clear in recent months.
Elliott said the decision was made due to staffing pressures and the need for bed spaces in light of Omicron’s growth across the province.
The chief executive officer of Ontario Health, which oversees the province’s health system, said the directive would affect between 8,000 and 10,000 procedures a week.
“It was a tough decision, a big cost, but something that is necessary given what we’re seeing in the numbers,” Matt Anderson said.
Between 1,200 and 1,500 additional beds have been designated to provide care to patients with Omicron, Moore said.
“We anticipate through the modeling that those 1,200 to 1,500 beds will be essential to be able to provide oxygen and care,” he said.
Moore noted that the number of hospitalizations will dictate when restrictions can be relaxed.
The “tsunami” of Omicron cases is expected to result in 20 to 30 percent absenteeism for employees in all sectors across Ontario in the coming weeks, he said.
Expanded rebate program for businesses affected
Employers are asked to let employees work remotely “unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site.”
The government said free child care will be provided for frontline workers with school-aged children. The decision to move to virtual learning comes less than a week after the government said it would open schools in person on Wednesday.
Also announced Monday was an expanded rebate program for businesses affected by the new slate of closures.
The government said certain businesses ordered to close will be reimbursed for 100 percent of property tax and energy costs, and those that must reduce capacity to 50 percent will receive a rebate payment for half those expenses.
Ahead of the news conference, Ontario reported another 13,578 new cases of COVID-19. That followed 16,714 cases on Sunday and a pandemic-high 18,445 cases on Saturday.
Public Health Ontario has warned recently that daily case counts are “an underestimate” given changes to testing eligibility and Omicron’s quick spread.
Omicron cases surge
Ontario discovered its first case of the Omicron variant on Nov. 28, just days after South African researchers alerted the world to its existence. Around three weeks later, Omicron became the dominant variant, making up the majority of new daily infections in the province.
On Dec. 16, Ontario’s COVID-19 science table called for “circuit breaker” restrictions to combat the rapid spread of Omicron and avoid ICU admissions reaching “unsustainable levels” by early January.
In response, Ontario reintroduced capacity limits at restaurants, bars, and retailers on Dec. 19, capping most at 50 percent. It also mandated they close at 11 p.m., imposed limits on the sale of alcohol, and limited private indoor gatherings to 10 people.
Some limits were also placed on sports and extracurricular activities, and capacity restrictions on large venues were also imposed.
But some experts warned even those measures weren’t strong enough to curb “out of control” transmission of the virus.
Hospitalizations, ICU admissions rising
While a more comprehensive provincial update is expected Tuesday, below are some key pandemic indicators and figures provided by Health Minister Christine Elliott Monday morning.
The number of people with COVID-19 in ICUs across the province rose to 248 on Monday from 224 on Sunday and 214 on Saturday. The seven-day average currently sits at 210.
In total, there are 1,232 people hospitalized with COVID-19, although Elliott noted that not all hospitals report on weekends.
More than 89,000 doses of vaccine were administered on Sunday, Elliott said, and to date, 27,422,363 doses have been administered in Ontario. Nearly 91 percent of Ontarians aged 12 or older have received one dose of a vaccine, while more than 88 percent have received two doses.