Mass COVID-19 immunization clinics are opening across Simcoe County and Muskoka on Monday as the region locks down for the third time since the start of the pandemic.
By the end of this week, a total of 13 coronavirus vaccination sites will open throughout the region in Barrie, Innisfil, Huntsville, Bracebridge, Orillia, Midland, Penetanguishene, Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, New Tecumseth and Bradford.
“There’s been a great deal of controversy and division with regards to going into lockdown-grey,” Dr. Charles Gardner, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health, said Monday.
“One of the ways we can overcome it is with immunization.”
The local health unit started receiving doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in December and has since inoculated people in the region’s long-term care and retirement homes, in addition to priority health-care workers at hospitals.
Last week, paramedics and First Nations communities in the region were also immunized.
“Now we’re moving to this next stage of having much more capacity,” Gardner said Monday.
“We’re now embarking with other priority groups in health-care, with the urban adult Indigenous population in Simcoe Muskoka … and those that are 85 and above.”
Across Simcoe County and Muskoka, the news of another lockdown — just less than two weeks after the previous one was lifted — has sparked backlash, specifically among small businesses.
Under the revised grey-lockdown measures, all retailers are allowed to remain open at reduced capacity with restrictions, but indoor and outdoor dining, personal care services, fitness centres and movie theatres must close.
Indoor gatherings with people outside one’s household are also prohibited.
“The recent announcement of Simcoe Muskoka moving into a third lockdown is devastating,” the Downtown Barrie Business Association (BIA) said in a letter addressed to Gardner, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the area’s local members of provincial parliament (MPPs)
“We are requesting that the restrictions within the grey/lockdown zone be immediately revised to allow small businesses who are already adhering to the restrictions and health guidelines, and who pose little to no public health risk, to remain open.”
The Downtown Barrie BIA said many small businesses now face “massive losses” since they’ve restocked their inventories, onboarded staff and spent tons of capital to comply with the necessary health and safety regulations.
“Having to open and close a business means that we’re buying inventory and then having to throw it out because we can’t … sell or get rid of it,” Stefano Agostino, the owner of P_zza in Barrie, said.
“It’s weighing in on a lot of financial stress.”
Agostino told Global News he was “furious” and “scared” when he heard of a third shutdown in the region and that he’s keeping his restaurant doors open despite restrictions.
On Sunday, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman echoed sentiments over concerns for local small businesses, demanding Ontario “immediately” revise the business restrictions under the province’s grey-lockdown category of its COVID-19 response framework.
“On March 1st, many personal service businesses are being forced to close again,” Lehman said in a letter addressed to Ford, Gardner and local MPPs.
“Many of these businesses, such as photographers, are sole proprietors who work with single customers at a time. Others, such as outdoor recreation facilities, have enough space for every customer to maintain an extremely large area.”
Since all retailers are allowed to stay open at reduced capacity, Lehman said there seems to be “little reason” why other small businesses can’t open with the same measures.
“We should be targeting areas of public health concern — workplaces including large retail stores with congregate settings where distancing or protection protocols are a problem or are a source of infection,” he wrote.
Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson called the announcement of a third lockdown “unfair” to local businesses.
“Blue Mountain retail outlets, restaurants, coffee shops and bars can operate under a relaxed green zone designation, while five minutes away, Collingwood’s businesses are forced to severely cut back operations or close,” he said in a statement Monday.
“We will consider all options, including asking the province to reconsider this decision, to divide the health unit into sub-regions and lobby the provincial government for additional financial assistance, along with working with our local businesses and residents to expand the support local campaign.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Simcoe Muskoka health unit responded to concerns over the lockdown, saying it’s meant to be a “short-term emergency brake” that’s intended to prevent a possible third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know that this is incredibly difficult and I sincerely wish we were not in this level of restriction,” Gardner said in a statement Sunday.
“However, we are seeing increases of cases and outbreaks of the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant in Simcoe and Muskoka in workplaces, long-term care facilities, a childcare centre and an apartment building. Countries that have experienced high numbers of variants of concern have then experienced a third wave of COVID-19, and we need to act early to prevent that from happening here.”
On Monday, Queen’s University economics professor Christopher Cotton told Global News that repeated lockdowns are more costly than locking down once for an extended period of time.
“When you start relaxing lockdown restrictions, the economy slowly starts to recover,” he said.
“That process takes time, and if as that process is underway we end up locking down again and starting that process over, that’s actually going to be more costly for the economy than just locking down more at the beginning and avoiding having to do it later on.”
Simcoe Muskoka has the highest number of coronavirus variants of concern in Ontario. On Monday, local public health confirmed 190 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and 309 cases of a variant of concern.