TORONTO — An Ontario cottage-country mayor called for a more flexible approach to COVID-19 containment on Saturday ahead of both new lockdown measures for his municipality and a sobering milestone in the province’s efforts to curb virus transmission. 

The province’s overall case count since the onset of the global pandemic inched towards 300,000, driven in part by rising numbers of infections linked to virus variants of concern.

The 1,185 new infections added to the provincial total on Saturday pushed the overall tally to 299,754. The province, which has been logging around 1,000 new cases a day in recent weeks, is poised to cross the 300,000 threshold on Sunday.

The rising number of cases tied to virus variants, which grew by 31 on Saturday, prompted the province to trigger a so-called “emergency brake” in the Thunder Bay and Muskoka Simcoe public health units on Friday in a bid to limit further transmission. 

The move didn’t sit right with Bracebridge, Ont., Mayor Graydon Smith, who said the decision doesn’t account for differences in infection rates within the Muskoka region. 

Smith wants the county’s medical officer of health to treat Muskoka differently, saying most of the elevated infections are in the southern portion of the county in cities like Barrie, Ont.

“While we recognize we’re all one health unit, there are certainly different conditions and situations within that health unit that make us feel like we might be unduly affected by that blunt an instrument,” Smith said in a telephone interview.

Smith said the broad brush the government is deploying stands to harm local businesses struggling to get back on their feet after a provincewide stay-at-home order that only lifted two weeks ago. 

“I think business owners who have just been given an opportunity to get open and start functioning a little bit closer to normal right now are seeing that go away again, especially in the restaurant, beauty salon, gym side,” he said. 

But another affected mayor said there were statistically sound reasons for a shift to the grey phase of the province’s colour-coded pandemic response plan.

Speaking ahead of the government’s Friday announcement, Thunder Bay, Ont., Mayor Bill Mauro said the local public health unit had recorded more COVID-19 cases in February than throughout all of 2020.

“We’re in a difficult spot right now,” he said at the time. “Clearly there is a situation here that we don’t see ending in the near term.”

But even as two units prepare to see tighter public health restrictions take effect, such measures are set to ease in several other regions. 

The Niagara Region, Chatham-Kent, Middlesex-London, Southwestern, Haldimand-Norfolk, Huron Perth, and Grey Bruce will all move to less restrictive tiers of the province’s pandemic response framework.

Saturday’s case counts showed long-standing COVID-19 hot spots continuing to lead the province in new infections. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Toronto saw 331 new cases in the past 24 hours, nearby Peel Region recorded 220 and York Region logged 119.

Hospitalizations in the province declined by three to 680, with 276 patients in intensive care and 182 on a ventilator.    

Ontario is also nearing 7,000 total pandemic-related deaths, with the 16 reported on Saturday pushing the provincial total to 6,960.

The province reached 200,000 cases 54 days ago on Jan. 5. Infection rates have slowed somewhat during that period — it took the province 47 days to progress from 100,000 to 200,000 total cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2021.

Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press

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