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As Covid policies divide America, Ontario doubles down (again)


OTTAWA — The premier of Canada’s biggest province opened 2022 with a shutdown notice for Ontarians entering their third year of Covid. “We face a tsunami of new cases,” Doug Ford said Monday as he shut schools, canceled surgeries, closed theaters and forbid indoor dining.

Restaurant patios will be allowed to open, though at minus 19 degrees Celsius in the nation’s capital, it could prove a tough sell.

Indoor social gatherings will be restricted to five starting Wednesday. Outdoor gatherings will be capped at 10 as the province aims to slow the spread of the Omicron variant in a population in which 81 percent of eligible Ontarians are double vaccinated — and one in four has already received a booster. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received his third dose Tuesday morning.)

The verdict from health experts: Too little, too late, told you so.

Public health experts across the country had warned for weeks that Omicron’s off-the-charts transmissibility would fuel a startling new wave of infections at a time when Covid-weary families — boosted or not — were making plans to gather.

Sabina Vohra-Miller, a health advocate and co-founder of the Vohra Miller Foundation, was among those to sound the alarm and call for guidance and restrictions.

“We know people are going to get together during the holidays. And this is going to cause exponential growth. I mean, there’s already exponential growth,” she told POLITICO on Dec. 15.

“We have to be proactive, not wait until things have gotten out of control. It is so much harder to get things back under control when it’s already past that point.”

At the time, Ontario logged 1,808 new cases. Two days before Christmas, the number jumped to 5,790. On New Year’s Eve, it hit 16,790.

The hints of a January crackdown, the likes of which seemed unthinkable even a month ago, burbled just before the holidays. Canadians were advised not to travel overseas. School kids were ordered to take everything home.

Liberals and New Democrats in the House of Commons shortened their in-person benches in mid-December, embracing a hybrid setup as they warned of a dangerous new variant spreading like wildfire. The same parties soon forbade MPs from international holiday travel.

In a hockey-obsessed nation, players at all levels became canaries in a coal mine.

December outbreaks hit most Canadian NHL teams, whose games were postponed. The annual World Junior tournament, hosted just after Christmas in Edmonton and Red Deer, went kaput after a smattering of positive tests on several teams. The biggest youth hockey tournament on the planet, Ottawa’s annual Bell Capital Cup, was next on the chopping block.

Duty-free shops have been reduced to ghost towns. “I heard from some stores that they would have one or two sales a day,” said Barbara Barrett, the executive director of the Frontier Duty Free Association. She blamed federal travel advisories for the reduced traffic and “dismal” morale among her members.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans — and Canadians, too — were tuning into dozens of college and pro football bowl games attended by tens of thousands of unmasked fans — none deterred by record-setting daily case counts all over that country. (Ontario’s shutdown includes a cap of 10 on outdoor gatherings, precisely 66,829 fewer than attended last weekend’s Orange Bowl.)

Innovative Research Group pollster Greg Lyle found in a December survey that Canadians were losing confidence in governments’ handling of Covid. But as fears of the virus ramped up, respondents were “more likely to see provincial public health restrictions as too loose (34 percent) than too tight (23 percent).”

Lyle’s conclusion: “It is clear that pressure was building on governments to do something, and that something would include tighter restrictions.”

In Quebec, Premier François Legault has imposed his province’s second curfew of the pandemic — a last-resort attempt to slow the skyrocketing spread that went over like a lead balloon among civil liberties advocates.

Quebec also called in the army to help with a surging vaccination campaign. The federal emergency preparedness minister, Bill Blair, confirmed Monday that Canadian Armed Forces personnel have been deployed to the province.

Most provinces are facing similar case spikes. Many have delayed returns to in-person learning. Alberta and British Columbia have postponed trials. Newfoundland and Labrador slashed capacity at gyms and restaurants.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s response echoes what he’s told Canadians from the beginning of the pandemic: “We’ve got your backs.”

The PM has held dozens of calls with provincial premiers since March 2020. He won an election in part by pitching vaccine mandates for the federal public service and travelers on airplanes and trains.

Senior federal cabinet ministers spent time Monday tweeting eligibility information for lockdown support programs approved by Parliament in the final hours before a six-week winter recess that ends Jan. 31. Canadians who can’t work because of capacity restrictions can apply for weekly payments of C$300 — a revamped, targeted version of a defunct $C2,000-a-month benefit.

Trudeau’s critics say those measures don’t solve capacity issues in provincial health care systems. The feds delivered billions to the provinces last year in the form of an expanded Canada Health Transfer, but premiers have complained that one-off increase isn’t enough. They’ve called for sustained increases in annual funding to the tune of C$35 billion.

Provinces have struggled badly against testing capacity limits. Ontario distributed millions of rapid antigen tests in December through its network of government-owned liquor stores, but government-administered PCR tests are harder to come by. They’re now reserved for high-risk symptomatic individuals. Everyone else who feels symptoms is presumed positive.

Trudeau’s Liberals insist they’re constantly buying and delivering rapid tests across Canada — a total of 112 million of them, according to the latest available data. But provinces are always hungry for more. Alberta recently asked for 30 million over three months.

Federal-provincial squabbles about pandemic management often morph into spats about jurisdiction and who’s responsible for what.

The so-called Team Canada approach, in which premiers mostly held their tongues instead of attacking Ottawa, held for much of the first two years of the Covid era. But this high-stakes wave of infections is a test of tenuous relationships.

Skyrocketing caseloads and limited testing capacity virtually everywhere has touched off a debate about whether or not basic case counts should even guide decisions about new restrictions. Amid early data that suggests most Omicron infections are relatively mild, there’s an open question around dinner tables: If it’s mostly impossible to avoid Omicron, would it even be so bad?

One key metric is hospitalization numbers, but even that produces asterisks. More and more Covid-positive patients are popping up in hospital beds for unrelated reasons and adding to the overall number — a discrepancy Ontario’s official number-crunchers will soon accommodate. Hospitalizations also lag infections, which means the disease is always ahead of the data.

The true mark of Omicron’s deadliness will likely be found in intensive care units. Most public officials are cautiously optimistic the variant is broadly milder than Delta, though their inevitable caveat is that a prolonged spike in cases could still overwhelm most health care systems.

Ontario’s new restrictions kick in Wednesday. Health advisers in the province say they believe the wave will crest later this month. “We anticipate a very short, quick, rapid approach to this epidemic and the impact on the health care system,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said Monday.

A health care system in ruins is the worst case scenario for any province, and Ford’s desperate plea could save lives. But there’s another factor at play.

Ontario voters go to the polls in June. The metric that matters most to the premier on that day lies at the ballot box. A disastrous wave of infections that leaves a distraught province looking for someone to blame could spell the end of the Ford era after just a single term.

If Ford’s shutdown saves lives, it could also save his own skin.

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