The mayor of Ottawa and the local public health unit are coming down against the Ontario government’s decision to loop the nation’s capital in with the provincewide shutdown, arguing the city’s stable rates of coronavirus infection don’t warrant a 28-day lockdown.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Monday afternoon that the city’s residents and business owners were “blindsided” by Premier Doug Ford’s announcement, which will see non-essential businesses closed for a month starting on Boxing Day and indoor gatherings with other households banned.
Watson noted that when the city’s top doctor, Vera Etches, and Ottawa Public Health were asked for their opinion on a possible provincewide lockdown on Friday, they did not support including the city in the restrictions.
OPH reported 31 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, compared with 611 in Toronto and 480 in Peel. As the Ontario Hospital Association issues dire warnings regarding capacity in the province’s intensive care units, Ottawa currently has no patients with COVID-19 in its ICUs.
Ottawa is also reporting an overall infection rate of 27 people per 100,000, with 1.4 per cent of tests coming back positive in the city — figures that are much higher in the GTA.
“As we face this provincial decision today, there are simply no facts to support the lockdown in Ottawa,” Watson said.
In light of Ottawa’s relative success in flattening the COVID-19 curve, Watson accused the Ford government of moving the “goalpost” when it comes to setting the provincial framework for reopening amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Officials in Ottawa previously butted heads with Queen’s Park in October, when the city was included in shutdowns that forced the closure of gyms and indoor dining amid outbreaks in Toronto.
Watson said he has asked the province to reconsider including Ottawa in the 28-day lockdown and either reducing the period to 14 days — in line with northern Ontario — or keeping the city in the orange “restrict’ zone where it is.
Etches, too, said she was “disappointed” with the province’s decision. She said she had reached out to provincial officials to ask for a reduced lockdown, but had not yet heard back on whether changes could be made before the decision goes into effect on Dec. 26 at 12:01 a.m.
Ford said Monday that the lockdown’s province-wide scope was necessary because people living in areas with the harshest coronavirus restrictions have been travelling to regions in the green or yellow zones of Ontario’s COVID-19 reopening framework.
He also suggested that since Quebec is locking down over the holidays, Gatineau residents could cross the border into Ottawa to take advantage of looser restrictions.
“Areas like Ottawa … will be at tremendous risk over the holidays of people flooding in across the border if they were to stay open,” he said.
“We’ve seen it before. When we open up and Quebec closes down, we get Quebecers.”
But Watson pushed back against that assertion on Monday afternoon, saying Ottawa has seen ”no evidence” that would suggest a spike in border crossings amid differing restrictions between the regions.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said Monday that even though Ottawa’s numbers have been stable, the situation can change quickly. Regions in the province that were sitting comfortably in the green or yellow zone have seen their case numbers spike quickly and had their lockdown status increase, he said.
“Our preventative measures are as important as our reactive measures,” he said.
Etches acknowledged that travel over the holiday season could disrupt Ottawa’s delicate balance in the pandemic.
“I do see risk if Ottawa was the only place in the whole province open,” she said.
But she reiterated her concerns that Ottawa should take a balanced approach in managing COVID-19 shutdowns, citing the economic and mental health impacts of taking kids out of school, closing businesses and limiting access to businesses and services.
“In a shutdown, we lose balance,” she said.
Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s general manager of emergency and protective services, said bylaw officers won’t be knocking on doors in Ottawa to ensure gathering limits are respected but will respond to complaints on a case-by-case basis.