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What will Ontario's 1st stage of reopening look like? Premier Ford gives details

Saturday, May 16th 2020, 12:10 pm - Province clarifies there were 345 new cases Thursday, says glitch responsible for previous report of 258

Ontario's first stage of economic recovery will include resuming construction projects and the reopening of some workplaces, seasonal activities and healthcare settings — but if you're looking to find out when schools or day cares might reopen or when you can expand your social bubble, you won't find the details in today's plan.

Starting May 19, retail stores outside of shopping malls with street entrances can begin reopening with physical distancing measures. Outdoor recreational activities and many individual sport competitions will also get the green light starting Tuesday.

ALSO SEE: Provincial breakdown of golf restrictions during COVID-19

Golf courses, marinas and private parks will be allowed to open earlier, starting Saturday — ahead of the Victoria Day Weekend.

The first stage also involves the "gradually restarting" scheduled surgeries, along with allowing libraries to open for pickup, and allowing property management services, such as cleaning, painting and pool maintenance, to resume.

Domestic workers, such as housekeepers and cooks, can also resume work Tuesday — although Ontarians are technically still required to limit contact to those inside their own households.

REUTERS - doug ford File photo of Doug Ford. Courtesy: Reuters.

"Businesses should open only if they're ready," Ontario Premier Doug Ford warned, adding the province will be watching the COVID-19 case numbers like a hawk. "We cannot let our guard down now."

Stage one of the province's reopening plan will see workplaces gradually begin to reopen "but working from home should continue as much as possible," the plan states.

As for when the next stage of the recovery plan might begin, "there is no timeframe" on that, the premier said.

In its recovery framework last month, the government said each stage will last at least two to four weeks, at which point Ontario's chief medical officer of health will be able to tighten certain restrictions, extend the stage or advise that the province can move into the next phase.

The government's framework set out a number of criteria for beginning to phase out restrictions on businesses and gatherings. They included:

  • A consistent two–to-four week decrease in the number of new daily COVID‑19 cases.
  • Sufficient acute and critical care hospital capacity to respond to potential surges.
  • Approximately 90 per cent of new COVID‑19 case contacts being reached by local public health officials within one day.
  • Ongoing testing of suspected cases to detect new outbreaks quickly.

As for whether those criteria have been met, Williams said Tuesday he wasn't so sure.

On the question of how the province might change course if the number of COVID-19 cases spike, Ford said, "We always go by the advice of our chief medical officer."

HOW BAD WOULD THINGS NEED TO GET TO PRESS PAUSE?

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams was asked about what threshold the province would have to meet before pressing pause or rolling back its reopening plans.

"If we do get a large increase in a period of time, we'd have to ask a number of questions," he said.

"Where are the cases coming from? How significant is it? Is it contained? ... I can't really say any specific number — any increases of certain mounts will always be of concern for us if we can't explain how it's been and why it can't be contained."

At Thursday's news conference, Health Minister Christine Elliott was also asked about when Ontarians can expect to expand their physical contact beyond their own households.

"We don't have the final answer yet, but we are studying it," she said, adding the province is also looking at when religious settings might be able to resume regular operations.

Ford also warned restaurants will need to remain closed for the time being, and will be limited to takeout for now.

Restaurant/CBC There's no word yet on when Ontario might allow restaurants to resume dine-in service. Sauvignon restaurant in Toronto is among those doing take-out only. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

The province also announced a new service to help business owners find suppliers of personal protective equipment to keep their workplaces safe.

Ontario's official opposition reacted to the news by pointing out that over the past 30 days, Ontario has averaged just 12,600 tests daily — far short of Ford's stated target of 20,000 — and that not all positive cases have been thoroughly contact-traced.

"Everyone is eager to start easing restrictions, but Doug Ford needs to dramatically ramp up testing and contact tracing to make it safer for everyone when we do that," said NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

"No one wants to see Ontario take one step forward and two steps back. We don't want to see more people getting sick, and freshly re-opened businesses having to close again, she said in a statement."

PROVINCE EXPANDING TESTING CRITERIA

Meanwhile, Elliott said the province will now expand its testing guidelines for COVID-19. The province reported 258 additional cases, the fewest new cases in a single day since March 29.

Of those, approximately half were in long-term care homes, something Williams said he found "reassuring" — "that is to say, this is within the ability to do case contact management and going toward containment."

In a series of tweets Thursday morning, Elliott said that the revised guidelines will now allow for "anyone with symptoms" to get a test.

"Doing so will help identify and contain new cases and monitor any shifts in community spread to keep Ontarians safe," she continued.

So far, Ontario has prioritized testing the province's approximately 70,000 residents of its 630 long-term care homes, as well as tens of thousands of health-care workers and support staff employed in the facilities.

Some 1,308 residents have died from COVID-19-linked illness, while a total of 2,501 have been infected by the novel coronavirus. Ontario's Ministry of Long-term Care is currently tracking outbreaks in 185 facilities, while cases have been reported in a total of 254.

Elliott said the push to test all residents and staff is nearly complete, opening up capacity for Ontario's network of labs to begin processing more samples from other at-risk populations — such as those in retirement homes and shelters — as well as from the general public.

It's not clear, however, exactly what will change. Health officials repeatedly said throughout April and the first half of May that anyone displaying symptoms could already be tested, though CBC Toronto has heard from dozens of people who said that was not the case.

Asked exactly what the new guidelines mean, Elliott said, previously testing was "really based on the judgment of the clinic that was in charge of the assessment centre."

"It is more of an emphasis now on public testing, which we need to have so that we can understand what's happening in the community as we open up," Elliott said.

Ontario has previously revised its testing guidelines several times since the COVID-19 outbreak began in late January. Williams has stressed that a more robust testing regime will be essential in the coming weeks and months, as well as into the fall when a second wave of the novel coronavirus could hit.

VIDEO: GOLF IN THE AGE OF COVID-19

DOWNWARD TREND IN NEW CASES CONTINUES

The province's report of 345 new cases of COVID-19 means an increase of 1.5 per cent in total cases — the smallest Ontario has seen so far — that marks several consecutive days of downward-trending figures.

There have now been a total of 21,494 infections in Ontario, of which more than 75 per cent are resolved.

The Ministry of Health's official death toll sits at 1,798, an increase of 33 since the last update. Data compiled from regional public health units, however, puts the current toll at 1,902.

Some 17,429 COVID-19 tests were processed as of Wednesday, the first time since Sunday that the province has met its target of 16,000 tests per day. The backlog of tests waiting to be processed grew to 17,578, the most in a single day since Ontario began reporting testing data.

Currently, there are 1,026 COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals, an increase of eight since the day before. Those in intensive care units dropped to 184, down 5 from 189. And patients requiring a ventilator decreased by 3, from 144 down to 141.

The province has extended its state of emergency to keep pandemic public health measures in place until June 2.

VIDEO: COVID-19 AND VULNERABLE POPULATIONS

UNION ASKS PROVINCE TO TAKE OVER 6 LTC HOMES

Meanwhile, one day after the province announced a new emergency order that allows it to temporarily control the management of long-term care homes, a major health-care union is asking it to take over at six facilities hard hit by COVID-19.

In an open letter to Ford, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) says it members have lost confidence in the management at the following long-term care homes:

  • Orchard Villa: 74 resident deaths
  • Eatonville Care Centre: 40 resident deaths
  • Sienna Altamont Care Community: 46 resident deaths
  • Downsview LTC Nursing Home: 39 resident deaths
  • Sienna Camilla Care Community: 56 resident deaths
  • The Village of Humber Heights: 31 resident deaths

In her letter, Sharleen Stewart says that three SEIU members, all personal support workers, have died from COVID-19. She also notes that about 80 per cent of all COVID-19-linked deaths in Ontario have been residents of long-term care facilities.

Yesterday, Minister of Long-term Care Marrilee Fullerton said the government didn't yet see a need to enact the emergency order, but wanted to keep it as an option moving forward.

Stewart is also calling for the Progressive Conservative government to commit to a full public inquiry into Ontario's long-term care system. Ford has only said that a review will be carried out, but has thus far declined to commit to a public inquiry.

One silver lining in Thursday's news: one of the province's hardest hit nursing homes has declared its COVID-19 outbreak over.

Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., which saw the deaths of 28 residents and the spouse of one resident, says its residents have been without symptoms for 14 days.

"Despite today's positive news, all ongoing infection control and prevention measures will remain in place to ensure the continued health and safety of our residents and staff," administrator Mary Carr said in a statement.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest challenge we have seen in our home. I want to thank the Bobcaygeon community, our dedicated staff, residents' families, and health system partners for their support."

With files from Mike Crawley, Shanifa Nasser, Lucas Powers and The Canadian Press.

This article was originally published for CBC News.

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