Reopening locked-down economies is not easy. Because governments did the locking down, governments are key to the reopening. How Ontario’s government manages it, given the province’s demographic and economic weight, will have consequences across the country. Ontarians and Canadians could do better if Ontario followed the example of other jurisdictions and published a clearer and more comprehensive reopening plan.
Where can Ontario look for ideas? Its immediate Canadian neighbours, Manitoba and Quebec, are not very helpful examples. Manitoba reopened earlier but it never had a per capita caseload anything like Ontario’s. Quebec still has a worse caseload and had to backtrack on relatively aggressive early reopening plans when its numbers refused to improve. It is now proceeding with a “calculated risk” reopening while its case load is still climbing. More relevant examples for Ontario are New York state, Alberta and France. All have had alarming numbers. All have phased plans for reopening. But they are moving more decisively than Ontario, including dealing with such fraught issues as regional differentiation, testing and contact tracing.
Like Ontario, New York has a phased plan but it is clearer both about what happens in each phase and what criteria allow a move to the next phase. Five regions of the state met the criteria and went to Phase 1 on May 15; two more regions just followed.
Along with criteria such as a declining number of new cases and hospital capacity, New York’s conditions for reopening include requirements both for the availability of tests and for having sufficiently large contact tracing teams up and running within a region. The state stepped up testing weeks ago — including antibodies testing, which is only just getting underway in Canada. So far it has conducted more than twice as many tests per capita as Ontario.
On May 14, following plans announced two weeks earlier, Alberta reopened everywhere for dentists, other medical professionals, some retail stores, museums, art galleries and daycares. Bars and restaurants (table service only), hair salons and barbershops could also reopen as of that date, except in Calgary and Brooks, where they remained closed until this week. Residents of Calgary and Brooks were asked not to travel to other parts of the province to access those services in the meantime. Alberta has not announced a date for its second or third phases of reopening but it has specified a number of businesses that will be allowed to reopen when these take effect.
With a slightly lower per capita caseload than Ontario’s, Alberta has conducted 20 per cent more tests per person. On May 1, it made an encrypted tracing app available and recommended that people download it to their phones and use it when in public. Teams of contact tracers will get back to those who test positive and, if they consent, to anyone they have had contact with.
COVID-19 hit France much harder than Ontario. But with France’s per capita rate of new cases now a quarter of Ontario’s, it has been lifting its lockdown. On May 11, shops, parks, small museums and libraries and some schools reopened in many parts of the country. Markets and malls could also reopen, subject to local authorities’ approval. France has also announced which businesses and activities can operate in subsequent phases and when that’s likely to be — for example, cinemas and theatres on June 2, restaurants and bars on June 15 — subject to continued progress against the disease.
France is reopening more slowly in regions where risk of resurgence is higher, as defined by the number of new cases, the capacity of the health system and the ability to meet testing targets. This multi-speed approach is possible because travel across departmental lines will be restricted to a 100-kilometre radius. France has an aggressive testing strategy with the goal of testing just over the one per cent of its population — 700,000 people — every week. Tracing “brigades” will hone in on the previous contacts of any new case.
Ontarians in general, and Ontario businesses in particular, would be better able to plan if — like New York, Alberta and France — the province published a clear list of activities and dates for the next phases of reopening, along with a more precise idea of what will guide it in allowing each next step. Such information would make everyone’s stake in keeping the relevant numbers low more obvious and would also help Ontarians be clear on what is still not yet open, allowed or recommended.
Robust testing and tracing let governments offer such clarity, especially for regionally differentiated reopening. Ontario has accelerated its testing since the last week of April but remains noticeably behind Canadian leaders Alberta and Quebec on that score. And we don’t yet know the details of a tracing plan, despite Premier Doug Ford’s comment that technology-assisted tracing would be “absolutely critical” to the province’s strategy.
We are all in this together. Ontario can help both itself and the rest of Canada by being more specific about the phases of, and conditions for, its reopening.
Daniel Schwanen is vice president, research, and William B.P. Robson president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute.