Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says that the government has no “no plans currently” to scrap the vaccine passport system or mandatory mask mandates, even as some western provinces unveil aggressive timetables for lifting most public health measures.
Elliott told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that while the province has begun the process of easing some public health measures, it remains committed to a “very cautious, phased approach” to reopening and is not planning to move up its already announced timeline.
Her comments come after officials in Alberta announced that the province’s proof of vaccination system will be scrapped immediately, with rules requiring students to wear masks in public schools slated to be lifted next week.
Saskatchewan has also said that it will no longer require proof of vaccination for access to some non-essential settings as of Monday and will lift its mandatory mask order by the end of February, so long as public health indicators continue to improve.
“We are the ones that make the decisions and we are looking at the evidence on a daily basis. The trends are going in a good direction now but we can’t sit back on our laurels and assume that it’s going to always continue,” Elliott said.
“Omicron is highly transmissible, we have the new variant BA.2 in some parts of Ontario as well and while it doesn’t appear as if it’s going to be more dangerous, it certainly appears to be more transmissible. So we still need to be very careful. We are not telling the people of Ontario that this is going to remain in place forever. But we’re not in the clear just yet and so we need to continue to protect Ontarians and protect each other with the passports and with the masks at this point.”
The Ford government had initially planned to drop virtually all remaining public health restrictions in March, including mandatory mask orders.
However, it was forced to abandon those plans amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in December.
Since then it has announced a more modest reopening plan, which will see it lift capacity limits in indoor settings where proof of vaccination is required as of Feb. 21 while also allowing 50 per cent capacity at sporting and concert venues.
By March it hopes to lift all remaining capacity limits, while keeping the proof of vaccination system and mandatory mask orders in place.
Meanwhile, some politicians and business owners have pushed for a faster reopening.
Speaking with reporters at a briefing earlier on Wednesday, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said that he believes there are “ongoing repercussions” from reopening too slowly and that there is now a “real basis” for lifting many restrictions sooner than currently scheduled.
“I look at our small businesses. We have lost two small businesses in Brampton alone this month and many are continuing to be extremely constrained in terms of capacity limits and given the hospital picture I simply don’t see a basis for that,” Brown said on Wednesday. “So I do believe there is a real basis for a faster reopening. I think there are consequences in our society – mental health, businesses bankruptcy. We have to get back on our feet as a province and a country.”
Brown said that over the last two weeks the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Brampton Civic Hospital has gone from 110 to 38, which he said is the type of decline “we haven’t seen at any point during the pandemic.”
Wastewater surveillance data also points to a likely peak in case counts in the province somewhere around Jan. 11.
“I think we really need to look at other aspects of this lockdown that continue to have repercussions in society that are unwarranted,” Brown said on Wednesday. “I look at the long-term care settings. You know, my grandmother is 107 years old and I can’t see her. She’s had COVID, she is double vaccinated with a booster and I can’t holder her hand, I can’t give her a hug. It is bewildering and I worry about the cost on mental health. I have to say the decline I have seen in my own grandmother over the last two years has been more significant than at any time in her life and I believe that a contributing factor is not having that social interaction.”
Officials with the province’s science advisory table have previously warned that the reopening of businesses and the increased mobility of residents will likely result in a “rebound” in hospitalization rates under all but “the most favourable assumptions.”