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New restrictions announced to brace for tsunami of COVID-19 cases

Unlike other variants throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Omicrom is less severe, but highly transmissible, resulting in a larger number of hospital admissions. Staff absenteeism is also expected to rise and affect operations in workplaces due to infection and exposure. Prince Edward County Memorial Hospital staff shown in pandemic gear in this file photo.

The province announced a reduction in gathering limits, further school closures, no indoor dining, 50 per cent capacity at retail stores – effective Wednesday, Jan. 5 for at least 21 days to Jan. 26.
The government met Sunday night to discuss returning to a modified version of Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen using measures to protect hospital capacity limits and surging COVID-19 cases due to the highly-contagious Omicron variant.

In addition, on Jan. 5 the Chief Medical Officer of Health will reinstate Directive 2 for hospitals and regulated health professionals, instructing hospitals to pause all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity.

“We face a tsunami of cases in the days and weeks ahead,” said Premier Doug Ford, during the announcement Monday morning. “Now we’re bracing for impact.”

Hastings Prince Edward case counts are to be updated from the New Year’s weekend Jan. 4, but Public Health Ontario warns the daily case records are underestimated given changes to testing eligibility and Omicron’s quick spread. Ontario recorded 16,714 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, down from Saturday’s pandemic high of 18,445 cases.

The number of recorded active cases in the province has crossed 100,000. Limited testing for only higher-risk people due to high demand and limited supply across the country means the gap between confirmed and actual cases will grow wider and the sheer number of people becoming infected – and having to isolate or quarantine – could overwhelm hospitals and threaten the ability of businesses to stay open.

Unlike other variants throughout the pandemic, Omicrom is less severe, but highly transmissible, resulting in a larger number of hospital admissions. Staff absenteeism is also expected to rise and affect operations in workplaces due to infection and exposure.

“Real-world experience and evidence in Ontario reveal that approximately one per cent of Omicron cases require hospital care. The rapid rise of Omicron cases, which may soon number in the hundreds of thousands, could result in the province’s hospital capacity becoming overwhelmed if further action isn’t taken to curb transmission. When one in 100 cases goes to hospital, it means that with this rapid increase in transmission the number of new cases requiring hospitalization will also rapidly increase daily. For example, 50,000 cases per day would mean 500 hospital admissions per day, which is greater than the peak daily hospitalizations of 265 per day from last spring, when hospitals were under significant strain during the third wave of the pandemic.”

The measures include:
– Reducing social gathering limits to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors.
– Limiting capacity at organized public events to five people indoors.
– Requiring businesses and organizations to ensure employees work remotely unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site.
– Limiting capacity at indoor weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites and ceremonies to 50 per cent capacity. Outdoor services are limited to the number of people that can maintain two metres of physical distance.
– Retail settings, including shopping malls, permitted at 50 per cent capacity. For shopping malls physical distancing will be required and food courts will be required to close.
– Personal care services permitted at 50 per cent capacity and other restrictions.
– Closing indoor meeting and event spaces with limited exceptions but permitting outdoor spaces to remain open with restrictions.
– Public libraries limited to 50 per cent capacity.
– Closing indoor dining at restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments. Outdoor dining with restrictions, takeout, drive through and delivery is permitted.
– Restricting the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and the consumption of alcohol on-premise in businesses or settings after 11 p.m. with delivery and takeout, grocery/convenience stores and other liquor stores exempted.
– Closing indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas, rehearsals and recorded performances permitted with restrictions.
– Closing indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities including gyms, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sport leagues. Outdoor facilities are permitted to operate but with the number of spectators not to exceed 50 per cent occupancy and other requirements.
– All publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning starting Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends and operational considerations.
– School buildings would be permitted to open for child care operations, including emergency child care, to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely and for staff who are unable to deliver quality instruction from home.
– During this period of remote learning, free emergency child care will be provided for school-aged children of health care and other eligible frontline workers.

“As we continue with our provincial vaccine booster efforts, we must look at every option to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant,” said Ford. “Putting these targeted and time-limited measures in place will give us more opportunity to deliver vaccines to all Ontarians and ensure everyone has maximum protection against this virus.”

In recognition of the impact the Omicron variant and additional public health measures have on small businesses, the government is expanding the new Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program.

Eligible businesses that are required to close or reduce capacity will receive rebate payments for a portion of the property tax and energy costs they incur while subject to these measures. Eligible businesses required to reduce capacity to 50 per cent, such as smaller retail stores, will receive a rebate payment equivalent to 50 per cent of their costs, while businesses required to close for indoor activities, such as restaurants and gyms, will receive a rebate payment equivalent to 100 per cent of their costs. A full list of eligible business types will be made available when applications for the program open later this month.

To improve cash flows for Ontario businesses, effective Jan. 1, 2022, the government is also providing up to $7.5 billion for a six-month interest- and penalty-free period for Ontario businesses to make payments for most provincially administered taxes, supporting businesses now and providing the flexibility they will need for long-term planning.

The government is also exploring options for providing further targeted and necessary supports for businesses and workers impacted by the province’s move into a modified Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen, including grants. The government will also continue to call on the federal government to help support Ontario businesses and Ontario workers by allowing eligible businesses to defer HST and to enhance supports available to workers affected by current public health measures.

“While the risks for severe illness are lower with Omicron than with the previous variants of concern, it is far more transmissible and hospitalizations are expected to continue to increase placing greater pressure on our health system,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “It is difficult but necessary to apply additional public health and workplace safety measures to help stop the spread of the virus and protect our health system capacity. Please follow all public measures and get vaccinated with your first, second or booster dose if you have not done already.”

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