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NDP says Ford to shut Ontario legislature next week amid backlash over outdoor COVID-19 restrictions

The exterior of Queen's Park in Toronto. File / Global News

TORONTO — Calls for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to undo new wide-ranging COVID-19 restrictions on outdoor recreational activities came Sunday, amid word the government had proposed to shut the legislature down as early as Wednesday.

The opposition immediately accused Ford of trying to hide from the anger caused by restrictions experts said were ineffective at curbing the pandemic spread, as well as his unwillingness to legislate paid sick days for workers.

Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said her New Democrats would not play along until the Progressive Conservative government had reversed what she described as its “dangerous police-state orders” and replaced them with public health measures.

Read more: Ontario reports 4,250 new COVID-19 cases, 18 more deaths

“We are not prepared to help Doug Ford go home, leaving a police state in place while he allows COVID-19 to run rampant, overrun hospitals, and steal the lives of Ontarians who would otherwise make it through this,” Horwath said in a statement.

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In response, government House leader Paul Calandra said the proposed closure was to protect legislature support staff from COVID-19, something he said could not be accomplished by a virtual sitting.

“The government presented options to adjourn the legislature to keep those who support elected officials safe,” Calandra said in a statement. “As is typical, the NDP have used this as an opportunity to score the cheapest of political points in the midst of a pandemic.”

The legislature is currently scheduled to sit until June. Calandra said it would be in session this week, but did not offer a more specific timeline.

Read more: A look at the current COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Ford of “hiding from the outrage he caused with his reckless actions and anti-science agenda.”

The brewing political fight and questions about the point of restrictions shuttering most outdoor recreational spaces came as the province again set hospital admission records and intensive care units struggled to save a growing number of patients.

Health authorities reported 741 people in intensive care with COVID-19, with more than 500 needing mechanical help to breathe. In all, 2,107 infected patients were in hospital.

The province also logged 4,250 new infections on Sunday, along with 18 new virus-related deaths. A total of 7,716 Ontario residents have now died from coronavirus disease since the onset of the pandemic.

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Ford has already walked back some of the broader police powers enacted Friday and said playgrounds could stay open. However, other outdoor recreational areas such as soccer fields, picnic tables and golf courses have to stay shut.

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Critics of the measures seized on the lack of scientific justification to denounce the emergency measures.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases expert with the University Health Network, called the outdoor restrictions misguided and said people should be encouraged to be outside.

“We know there’s very little risk of catching COVID-19 in outdoor settings,” Bogoch said. “We may as well focus on areas where the virus is actually being transmitted, which is indoor venues, predominantly among essential workers that don’t have the luxury of locking down or staying at home.”

One fast-growing online petition that called on Ford to reopen golf courses and allow pickleball blew through its 10,000-signature target Sunday.

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It’s a question of health, both physical and mental, said Mark Kalbfleisch, of Oshawa, Ont., who started the petition.

Read more: Doug Ford contacting consulates to try and get more COVID vaccines for Ontario, spokesperson says

“The government proved by opening golf last year, and pickle ball and rowing and things you can do to get outside, that it can be done safely,” Kalbfleisch, himself an avid golfer, said in an interview. “I don’t recall any cases of COVID being transmitted through golf.”

Amid a barrage of criticism and after police said they would not use their new powers to stop drivers or pedestrians at random and ask why they weren’t at home, Ford changed the rules again on Saturday. Officers must now have grounds to suspect a violation of stay-at-home orders before being able to demand information.

One lawyer, however, said the change was not much of an improvement because police officers could, under the new regulation, broaden their inquiries of people suspected of a breach.

“Based on responses to these questions, the police may take the position that they now have grounds to conduct a further investigation into that individual,” Nader Hasan said Sunday. “This power is ripe for abuse, pretext searches, and racial profiling.”

Read more: Ontario government alters new, temporary COVID-19 police powers after widespread backlash

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The dire COVID-19 situation in Ontario prompted the government to reach out across Canada last week and ask for health-care assistance, particularly nurses.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday the federal government was stepping up its help.

“We are mobilizing federal health-care workers from across government departments to deploy to the front lines in Ontario, specifically to the (Toronto area) where the situation is most critical,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister also said Ottawa would send more COVID-19 tests to Ontario and would cover the costs if other provinces send help.

Prince Edward Island on the weekend became the latest province to say it would like to help but noted it, too, is fighting the pandemic at home.

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