Randall Denley: Why the COVID critics against reopening Ontario's economy are wrong

It doesn't make sense to conflate the advice on Thanksgiving dinners with the rules on business reopening

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The favourite COVID critique of the week goes something like this: In Ontario, the government allows up to 100 people in a bar or restaurant, 50 in a casino or banquet hall and six around a restaurant table, but it’s telling people not to invite family over for Thanksgiving. Clearly, the government’s plan doesn’t make sense.

Well, not until one stops to think about it, anyway. Yes, the rules and restrictions on how business and consumers conduct themselves in public and the advice for what we should do in our own homes both involve numbers, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Unless your dining room is as large as a casino, a restaurant or a banquet hall, one would expect the appropriate number of occupants to be smaller. What’s more, businesses have a legal obligation and a financial interest in making sure their operations are safe and that all COVID precautions are taken. Those include masks, physical distancing, hand sanitizing and limiting the number of people allowed in. The goal is to keep the economy somewhat open.

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Compare that to the family Thanksgiving dinner, with maybe eight or 10 people seated in a typical dining room, close together, sharing a meal with family members they feel relaxed with, not the strangers from whom we reflexively keep a distance. Now, multiply that by the millions of Ontario families that would celebrate Thanksgiving in a normal year. It’s not hard to see why government and public health officials are advising people to skip the traditional gatherings this year. We are being asked to give up a one-day event to prevent a massive increase in close interaction. The goal is to protect you and your family.

What doesn’t make sense is conflating the advice on Thanksgiving with the rules on business reopening, which are themselves just baby steps toward a normality that’s still a long way off. Partial reopening of some of the venues that used to attract crowds impose such severe attendance limits that they are hardly open at all. For example, 50 people in a cavernous casino is a markedly cautious number. Sporting events, concerts and consumer shows that attract thousands of people a day are so wildly unimaginable that they aren’t even a topic of discussion.

Nevertheless, demands for the Ford government to return Ontario to much more limiting Stage 2 restrictions are becoming louder by the day. The government is resisting that demand, so far. This past weekend, it tightened restrictions on public gatherings in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa. It will take two weeks to see the effects of those restrictions. It would seem prudent to see what result they bring before invoking more draconian rules.

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The government has argued that changes that target specific trouble areas are more appropriate than blanket closures. Premier Doug Ford has been a bit wobbly on communications this week, but he’s been clear on the unfairness of shutting down a whole sector because some elements have had problems.

Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa wants indoor dining prohibited, arguing that 44 per cent of outbreaks in Toronto are linked to bars, restaurants and entertainment venues. It sounds like a huge problem, but as Ford pointed out Monday, de Villa’s number translates into trouble at 20 businesses out of 7,600 in that sector in Toronto.

Public health experts are right when they argue that further restricting Ontario’s economy is likely to reduce infections, but it’s a one-dimensional view that neglects to balance public safety with the economic and mental health benefits of economic reopening. That’s the bigger-picture concern that is making the government reluctant to impose broader closings. Ontario has already suffered permanent economic damage from the first wave of closings, which launched the province’s greatest economic setback since the Great Depression.

Supporters of more economic restrictions sometimes suggest a tighter lockdown will save the economy in the long run, but it’s a weak argument. A second shutdown will mean more jobs and businesses that are never coming back, especially small businesses, restaurants, hotels and tourism businesses. Those sectors are already imperilled. At this point, dramatic action simply isn’t justified by current numbers of deaths or hospitalizations, both of which are dramatically lower than they were in the spring.

The Ontario government needs to balance economic activity and safety measures. That can be a tough sell when rising daily case numbers create a demand for government to do something, right now. One of the lessons we should have learned from this pandemic is to match the response to the magnitude of the problem. Despite some confusion about numbers, it’s a strategy that does add up.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author of the new mystery Payback, available at randalldenley.com Contact him at randalldenley1@gmail.com

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