Ontario urges bars, restaurants to close amid COVID-19 pandemic, hours after telling the public they could all stay open

The premier stressed that the decision to keep public gathering places open could change any time, depending on the advice of the province’s chief medical officer

Public life in Canada’s largest city was set to grind to a near-total halt Monday after Toronto’s top health official issued what amounted to an order that bars, nightclubs, theatres and dine-in restaurants close by the stroke of midnight.

The “strong recommendation” from Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, came as jurisdictions across the world continued Monday to entertain increasingly drastic measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ontario, the chief medical officer of health urged non-essential businesses and organizations where 50 or more people could gather to close their doors immediately. Dr. David Williams said that any private schools and daycares still open should close, while only restaurants offering take out should consider staying open.

Williams’ message, for now, remains a recommendation. The province has yet to officially order businesses closed. De Villa, however, went one step further. She told reporters Monday she would order any bars, restaurants and similar establishments still open Tuesday to close immediately and would issue heavy fines to any that defy the ban.

The twin messages from Ontario and Toronto’s top doctors capped a seesaw day in the province, where confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to grow at alarming speed. Recommendations and updates from all three levels of government came throughout the day. Bans expanded and policies changed hour-by-hour as experts and officials tried frantically to stay ahead of the pandemic.

At a press conference Monday morning, Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged the federal government to do more to secure the Canadian border amid reports of lax screening and big crowds at major airports.

“I am very concerned about reports we’ve been hearing at the border,” Ford said at Queen’s Park. “We need the federal government to tighten up the border and ensure that proper screening and protocols are being enforced.”

Just hours later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Canadian borders would be closed to most non-citizens and permanent residents and that, beginning Wednesday, no international flights would be allowed to land at any airport outside Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.

Meanwhile, Ford also said Tuesday morning that bars and restaurants would not be asked to close on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, one of the busiest drinking nights of the year. The evidence, he said, did not support such a move. Hours later, provincial and municipal health officials all but begged bars and restaurants to close, an indication of how quickly evidence can evolve in a pandemic galloping out of control.

In an effort to ease the burden on front-line workers, the Ontario government also launched a new online screening tool for patients worried they might be infected with COVID-19. Ford urged Ontarians to use the tool, available at Ontario.ca/coronavirus, to determine whether they need to seek care. “Please don’t visit an assessment centre unless you’re showing symptoms,” he said.

Meanwhile, Williams, said the province is now conducting “well over” 2,000 tests a day for COVID-19, up from about 1,200 last week. The aim, Williams said, is to get that number up to 5,000 per day in the very near future.

At the same conference, Ford announced a series of measures aimed at curbing the economic impact of the pandemic.

Under the proposed legislation, employers would not have to keep paying employees who can’t come in, officials said. However, the province said it was working with the federal government to ensure wages lost during the pandemic would be covered by employment insurance and other measures.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips announced at the same conference that the provincial budget scheduled for release next Wednesday will be delayed indefinitely. Instead, he intends to introduce a fiscal update, based on up-to-date economic forecasts, on March 25.

“This update will include a realistic one-year outlook based on current economic projection,” he said. “Our approach will include increased resources for the healthcare system, direct support for people, and action to protect jobs and our economy.”