© Jean LevacQuiet streets in downtown Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
Ontarians and their provincial government are facing a stark choice: either we learn to start living with COVID-19 risk or we can say goodbye to substantial chunks of the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors, along with many of the hundreds of thousands of jobs they create.
Premier Doug Ford said Monday that he will extend the province’s state of emergency until the end of June, which offers scant hope to businesses still closed by government decree. Ontario could very well remain stuck in phase one of its economic restart plan until then. The second phase, whenever that is, will open more businesses, but restaurants are unlikely to be allowed to open until phase three, which is so far off that one could not even hazard a guess.
There has been some talk of regional reopening in areas where the virus numbers are low, but Ford explained that it’s complicated, before returning to his mantra that “I just don’t want to chance anything.”
What the premier is chancing, and it’s more of a certainty than a chance, is that key sectors of the provincial economy will shrink drastically. That’s not fair to businesses and workers outside Toronto and the GTA, where 80 per cent of the COVID-19 cases are found. Ottawa has about four per cent of the province’s new cases daily.
What is the end game of the federal and provincial politicians who are propping up the economy with billions of borrowed dollars? That will accomplish nothing if they aren’t willing to reopen businesses in a way that allows them to be self-sustaining. If a business can be open but not make money, really all it has been granted is a delayed bankruptcy.
Creating rules for business reopening is a complex balancing act. Businesses must take enough visible precautions to create confidence among customers and staff, but if they go too far, people won’t spend.
Assessing risk is always difficult for individuals, and doubly so during this pandemic because the constant news coverage and new daily case numbers tend to create the impression of terrific risk. And yet, the numbers in Ottawa do little to substantiate that. As of Monday, the city has had 1,962 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Of those, 244 have died but only eight people under 60 have died. There are now 38 people being treated in hospital for the virus. Only 244 have ever been in hospital. Monday’s results added just 11 new cases.
One of the things we don’t know is how many asymptomatic people are out there, potentially spreading the virus. For purposes of illustrating risk, let’s say there are 1,000 of them walking around in Ottawa right now, a number that seems high relative to total identified cases. That would be one-tenth of one per cent of the population. If you were told that something was 99.9 per cent safe, how would you feel?
Perhaps it would be useful to compare what Ontario is doing to what’s happening in the U.S. Forget President Donald Trump’s erratic performance and look instead at the 50 states, governed by a mix of Republicans and Democrats. Almost all of them are farther advanced in reopening than Ontario is. Typically, retail, churches and hairdressers are fully open. Restaurants are, too, although often with outside seating only. States that have big regional disparities in infection have opened the safe regions, something Ontario has not done.
The higher death rates in the U.S. have made us feel superior, but our ultra-cautious approach is not sustainable. Americans, by and large, are deciding to live with COVID-19 risk. In Ontario, we’d rather be safe than sorry. The path we are on might make us safer for now, but it will also make us sorry as damage to our economy becomes irreparable.
A strong argument can be made for caution in Toronto and the GTA, but the argument is much weaker for Ottawa and eastern Ontario. The American experience certainly shows regional reopening is feasible, and Ottawans should demand it.