TORONTO – The province will return to a modified Step Two level of restrictions beginning January 5 as Omicron-variant COVID-19 cases exponentially surge. Elementary and secondary school students will move to remote-learning for at least two weeks, also beginning January 5.
Premier Doug Ford announced the new measures Monday morning (January 3).
“We face a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead,” Ford said saying that nearly everyone in Ontario will know someone who has contracted the virus. “Now we are bracing for impact. The evidence tells us that one percent of those who get Omicron will be in the hospital.”
The Premier said that government projections show that the province could see hundreds of thousands of new cases and triple-digit new hospitalizations per day.
“The math isn’t on our side,” Ford explained. “Health modelling tells us we could be thousands of beds short [in hospitals] within a couple of weeks. We cannot let that happen. We must do everything within our power to protect our hospitals.”
The modified Step Two restrictions mean that indoor dining will close again on Wednesday. Bars and night clubs will also close for indoor service. Outdoor dining can remain open, and drive-through, take-out, and delivery is still allowed.
Indoor gatherings are limited to five people, outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, and where possible, employees should work from home according to the government regulations.
Retail businesses can remain open (essential and non-essential) at 50 per cent capacity. Personal care service businesses are also able to remain open during the Step Two restrictions.
Indoor venues like arenas, theatres, and museums will close. Gyms will also close. Outdoor spaces and venues are allowed to remain open with physical distancing and other measures in place.
Modified Step Two restrictions will remain in effect for 21-days and end on January 26, unless extended further by the provincial government.
“Just because the way forward is clear, that doesn’t mean these decisions are without cost,” Ford said. “The hardship of these decisions are not shared equally.”
He said the province will fast track supports for businesses hardest hit by the new measures.
Returning to school was delayed by the province last week to January 5. Students will return to class, but it will be remote-learning for at least two weeks.
Ford explained the move to remote-learning will help schools be more prepared and give time to get more vaccinations completed.
“With this new variant, the ground is shifting every day. The level of absenteeism we are seeing in other [job] sectors tells us with absolute certainty that operating schools and ensuring teachers are on the job and not home sick is a challenge that we cannot overcome in the short term.”
Right now the plan for Ontario is to have students return to in-person learning in schools January 19.
The impact of the latest COVID-19 wave is being felt in hospitals. About one per cent of Omicron cases are expected to result in hospitalization, but not necessarily require intensive care unit stays. Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said that hospital stays for Omicron patients are typically less than those in previous COVID-19 waves.
To create more space in hospitals and prioritize COVID-19 response, Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the province is also enacting Directive 2 under the provincial reopening plan. That directive pauses non-emergency procedures in hospitals.
“I know everyone is tired, especially after what was a tough holiday season. But based on the data, the 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 roll out. “
During the province’s December 31, 2021 announcement of changes to COVID-19 case reporting and testing, the use of PCR testing was restricted to high-risk settings or patients. When asked how reopening metrics can be tracked to determine if the 21-day restriction period should be extended, Moore responded that hospital admissions are what will be followed.
“We anticipate [the surge] will reach its maximum by the end of January and then start to descend,” he said.
Calling the pandemic the “greatest challenge of this generation” Ford said he wants 2022 to be the year “we finally win the war against COVID and begin the road to recovery.”