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Ontario tightens restrictions, gives police new powers amid dire COVID predictions

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TORONTO — Ontario is extending a stay-at-home order, limiting interprovincial travel and shutting outdoor recreational facilities while giving police new powers to enforce the restrictions amid an onslaught of COVID-19.  

The Opposition decried the measures as too weak to flatten the curve while the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called the announcement the "Black Friday of rights slashing."

The new restrictions do not include mandated paid sick days, which labour groups and public health experts have said would protect vulnerable essential workers and help stop the spread of the virus in workplaces and the community at large.

Under the new measures, distribution centres, warehouses and manufacturing plants will remain open while outdoor gatherings will be restricted to members of the same household — people who live alone can join another household — and all recreational facilities such as sports fields, playgrounds and golf courses will be closed.

In addition, essential retailers will have to further lower capacity limits to 25 per cent, indoor religious services will be limited to 10 people, and non-essential construction will have to shut down.

Premier Doug Ford said the province was on its heels and tougher measures were needed.

"We're losing the battle between the variants and vaccines," Ford said. "The reality is there are few options left."

To enforce the measures, police and bylaw officers will now be able to stop motorists and pedestrians to ask them where they live and why they're not at home.

The new police measures drew immediate condemnation from civil liberties activists. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said granting police the authority to stop and question anyone at random risks a "rash of racial profiling."

"Random police stops during COVID are unconstitutional, presuming those outdoors or driving to be guilty," said Michael Bryant, head of the CCLA.

The group also said limiting interprovincial travel will hurt lower-income individuals, prioritizing first-class flyers over drivers.

The Toronto Police Service said it was reviewing the new orders.

"The provincial government announced stricter measures today to stop the spread of COVID-19 which includes new, temporary powers for police officers in all services across Ontario," a service spokesperson said in an email. 

"Prior to any change in our enforcement strategy, we will notify the public on how we plan to implement the new provincial orders."

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said officers will do their part to enforce stay-at-home orders and new enforcement measures.

"Our police officers will use their discretion in using such measures," the association said in a release.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service said it will review the new regulations but in the meantime, it will focus on speaking to people to educate them. It said enforcement will be a last resort.

"We will not be conducting random vehicle or individual stops. As before, our initiatives will be both complaint-driven or proactive, with the goal of gaining compliance," the service said in a release. 

"Those that refuse to comply will receive the appropriate penalty."

Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie said the city is reviewing the provincial order but has concerns.

"This new Provincial order that says 'police can stop people & ask them what they’re up to' stuff. I’m checking our Charter out on that one," he said in a post on Twitter. 

"I'm concerned about this & we’re reviewing it. Either way, we're not going to be policing our way out of this pandemic, that's for sure." 

Chief Peter Sloly of the Ottawa Police Service said his force will continue to encourage people to follow public health restrictions as it reviews the provincial government's new directives.

"The OPS will not be conducting random stops," he said in a release. "We will be taking a deliberate and careful approach that emphasizes equity, legality, and efficacy in the application of these authorities with the specific and exclusive purpose to support public health measures.

"In order to maintain public trust and support our members in their work, it is important we get this right.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the measures appeared too weak to flatten the curve. She also expressed concern about the impact the restrictions, and the new enforcement powers, could have on "front-line essential heroes." 

Starting Monday, checkpoints will be set up at the border with Quebec and Manitoba to prohibit non-essential entry. People crossing for work or transporting goods, among others, will be allowed in.

The new measures came just hours after Ontario's science advisers warned that the province's COVID-19 infections could soar past 15,000 cases per day by June without tougher restrictions.

The dire predictions came after the government pleaded with other provinces to send in nurses and health workers as its hospital system was pushed to the brink.

"Our progress is both frustrating and frightening," Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario's science advisory panel, said in presenting the latest projections.

Ontario reported 4,812 new cases — another record — on Friday, up from Thursday's record of 4,736. It also reported 25 more deaths related to the virus.

The latest data from Critical Care Services Ontario showed 684 COVID-19 patients in adult intensive care units. That number had reached 701 by Friday.

Hospitals were "bursting at the seams" and care was already being compromised, Brown said as his group urged Ford to order everyone to stay home for six weeks, and ramp up vaccinations as the only way to gain some control of the pandemic.

Vaccines were not reaching high-risk people fast enough to stem the surge in hospital and ICU admissions, Brown said. People at lowest risk were still receiving more vaccines than those at highest risk, he said.

"That is a difference that needs to be closed," Brown said, noting the province would see "a very, very big return" in prevented cases if shots were allocated to high-risk communities. 

According to the advisory group, 60 shots of a COVID-19 vaccine would prevent a single case under an age-based approach. By comparison, just 35 vaccines would prevent a single case if high-risk communities were targeted.

Ensuring workplaces were safe, supporting workers with sick leave and limiting mobility would make a provincial shutdown more effective, Brown said. 

In a letter to all provinces and territories sent Friday morning, Ontario's Deputy Health Minister Helen Angus said the province was short thousands of nurses and asked whether they had any to spare. The pandemic, Angus said, had strained hospital capacity in southern Ontario, particularly intensive care.

Ontario was expected to be short 4,145 nurses in the hospital sector alone over the next four months, Angus said, while asking her counterparts for 620 health professionals, including nurses and respiratory therapists.

"We are projecting a need for this critical support for four months following the anticipated peak of the third wave," Angus wrote.

Alberta, however, declined, saying it was strapped itself, while the premiers of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia indicated they were unwilling to share vaccines but were open to giving medical assistance if they could.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged federal help as he acknowledged the dire COVID-19 situation in Ontario, particularly in Toronto.

The Canadian Red Cross was on standby for deployment of mobile vaccination teams in areas with highest need in Ontario, the prime minister said, but Ford's office said the offer was appreciated but ultimately of little use given the shortage of vaccines.

Ford took shots at the federal government over the vaccine supply and what he said were lax international border controls for the surge in coronavirus variants now plaguing Canada.

He urged limiting air travel, tightening the U.S. border and doing more on testing and quarantining new arrivals. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 16, 2021.

Colin Perkel and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press