TORONTO — Mother’s Day gatherings contrary to physical distancing rules helped boost Ontario’s COVID-19 cases, the health minister said Monday, and those rising numbers — plus concern over a large crowd at a Toronto park over the weekend — are delaying any easing of those rules.
Ontario reported more than 400 new COVID-19 cases Monday for a fifth straight day, higher than the province has seen for several previous five-day periods.
That trend predates the province’s Stage 1 of reopening launched on May 19, Health Minister Christine Elliott said.
“The increase in the number of cases that we’re seeing now in the last few days really relates back to the week before, with the Mother’s Day events and so on, people seeing families when they should not have been more than five people together,” she said.
Premier Doug Ford himself has admitted that two of his daughters visited that weekend, leading to a group of at least six people at his home. Provincial officials have told Ontarians to avoid being within two metres of anyone outside their household, and not to gather in groups larger than five.
Elliott had previously said chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams was considering expanding the rule about gatherings to more than five people, and introducing a so-called bubble system that other provinces have implemented, where two households can closely interact only with each other.
But that was when provincial COVID-19 case numbers looked more promising, Elliott said.
“Given what happened with the numbers of people coming down with COVID in the last few days, along with what has happened over this past weekend with large groups of people coming together in Trinity Bellwoods and other parks, Dr. Williams is reluctant to move forward with that right away,” she said.
Torontonians flocked Saturday to Trinity Bellwoods, a popular downtown park, where city officials said thousands of people flouted physical distancing rules.
Ford said it looked like a rock concert without a band, and that he’s disappointed with everyone who was there.
“What I worry about is them going back home, how about their family members? Their brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts and grandparents? Weren’t they thinking of them when they went there?” the premier said.
“My recommendation to anyone at Trinity Bellwoods, why don’t you do us all a favour and go get tested now.”
Associate chief medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe later noted that the incubation period can be up to 14 days, so she instead recommended those people self-monitor and see if they develop symptoms first.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner criticized Ford for contradicting health officials with his testing comments.
“The Premier is putting public health at risk if he is making this up as he goes along,” Schreiner said in a statement.
Ford’s comments came as the province attempts to boost low testing numbers — reported Monday as 8,170, despite a daily capacity of nearly 25,000.
Ontario has struggled to boost its testing numbers after completing a blitz of testing nearly every resident and staff member of long-term care homes.
Ford announced Sunday that anyone concerned they may have been exposed to COVID-19 can now get tested, whether or not they have symptoms. He said mass testing is the province’s best defence against the virus and a new testing strategy targeting specific sectors will be unveiled this week.
The premier has spoken about testing asymptomatic front-line health-care workers, large workplaces such as food manufacturing facilities, groups such as truck or taxi drivers, and doing a second round of testing in long-term care.
He said Monday that Ontario will target specific postal codes that are hot spots, such as parts of Peel Region and Toronto, as well as the Windsor-Essex area.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network, said the recent spike in COVID cases is a serious problem but the province’s change in guidance could help convince more people to get tested.
“The messaging and the behaviour up until now was that people would go to these diagnostic testing centres and they would get turned away because they didn’t meet the criteria for a test,” he said. “That was incredibly frustrating for many people so they just went home and isolated without knowing if they had COVID-19.”
Bogoch said communication from the province could be clearer and will need to be repeated to get people out to testing centres.
“I think it’s going to take a lot to get this through,” he said. “We need to communicate this to every demographic in the province.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said testing needs to be expanded beyond assessment centres and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Ford’s push to have more people visit assessment centres was just a way to “hit” higher test numbers and not gather meaningful data.
Ontario reported 404 new COVID-19 cases Monday. That brings the total in the province to 25,904 cases, including 2,102 deaths — an increase of 29 over the previous day.
The total also includes 19,698 resolved cases, which represents 76 per cent of all cases, a third straight day of that percentage declining.
The new cases represent an increase of 1.6 per cent over Sunday’s total. Ontario has now seen growth rates of between 1.5 and 1.9 per cent for 16 of the past 17 days, and the chief medical officer of health has said the province’s growth curve appears to have hit a plateau.
—with files from Shawn Jeffords
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2020.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press