Sweeping new provincial measures designed to stem the spread of COVID-19 — including allowing police and bylaw enforcement officers to stop and question people in their cars and on the street — were met with widespread criticism on Friday.
“Blanket powers for police to stop vehicles like this bends our constitutional freedoms too far, and will cause a rash of racial profiling,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
The new provincial measures, which included closing parks and playgrounds, were announced Friday afternoon by Ontario Premier Doug Ford as COVID-19 infections soared to new highs in Toronto and provincially.
The one-day total of new COVID-19 cases reported in Toronto on Friday was 1,527, a record. Provincially, the number of new cases was 4,812, also a record.
The number of weekly cases in Toronto is now 302 per 100,000 people — also a record high, according to the Star’s Ed Tubb, who has been tracking transmission data since the pandemic began more than a year ago.
The number of daily new cases in Ontario could hit 30,000 by the end of May unless drastic steps are taken, the province’s COVID-19 advisory panel of medical and scientific experts said Friday. It is currently approaching 5,000 a day, forcing local hospitals to set up tents to treat patients.
Ford said that beginning Saturday, police and bylaw officers will have the authority to stop people and ask them for their address and ask them why they’re not complying with the provincial stay-at-home order. Those who refuse to comply could face a $750 ticket.
People may still leave home to shop for groceries, to go the pharmacy or access health care.
“I am very concerned about arbitrary stops of people by police at any time and I will be reviewing the regulations extremely carefully and discussing them with the Medical Officer of Health and the Toronto Police Chief,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory in a statement.
Both the provincial declaration of emergency and stay-at-home order have been extended for two more weeks.
“We are in the midst of an absolutely brutal third wave,” said Coun. Joe Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina Fort-York), who heads the city’s Board of Health, in a statement. “The coming weeks will test us like never before.”
Existing lockdown measures have not yet slowed the spread of COVID-19, driven now by the more contagious U.K. variant, B.1.1.7.
Hospitalization rates in Toronto are the highest on record and are expected to increase, according to a press release from the city. Without strengthened public health measures, projections indicate it will take until late this summer to reduce new case counts.
Ford blamed the current problems on lack of vaccine supply from the federal government.
But epidemiologist Dr. Andrew Morris, who has been critical of the province’s handling of the crisis, said Friday that Ford and his government are to blame for the current crisis.
“We are not much further behind than other countries vis-a-vis vaccine supply,” said Morris, medical director of the Sinai Health System-University Health Network’s antimicrobial stewardship program.
“Challenges with vaccine supply should have been expected. Only Israel, the U.K., the U.S. and a few small countries have had enough. This is just bad public health policy.”
Morris said the province also needs to provide workers with paid sick leave to encourage them to stay home if they feel ill, so they don’t transmit COVID-19 to colleagues. He said the province should also focus on getting essential workers vaccinated, restricting regional travel and keeping the outdoors open for recreation. He believes non-essential businesses and places of worship should also be closed.
He said police shouldn’t be involved except for egregious flouting of public health measures, and that allowing police and bylaw officers to stop people will target the most vulnerable.
“Have them police indoor parties. Or non-essential workplaces,” said Morris.
Dr. Martha Fulford, infectious disease specialist and associate professor at McMaster University, said the province should be taking a more targeted approach, legislating paid sick leave and ensuring essential workers and people working in factories and plants are vaccinated.
She said the last thing the province should be closing is playgrounds, especially in light of the lack of evidence to support the idea that COVID can be spread outdoors.
“It feels to me extraordinary that a year into this, we’re incapable of having targeted interventions to try to decrease the risk of COVID and not cause even more harm to the fabric of our society, because of course COVID isn’t the only thing we’re dealing with anymore — we’re dealing with mental health, we’re dealing with despair, we’re dealing with broken lives, we’re dealing with overdoses, we’re dealing with domestic abuse, we’re dealing with child abuse,” said Fulford, who has been critical of school closures because of the damage they do to children.
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