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Toronto’s top doctor says that residents will likely have to remain at home and only venture outside “for the most essential of needs” for the next 12 weeks amid a surging number of cases of COVID-19 locally that has placed the city on an alarming trajectory.
Dr. Eileen de Villa made the comment on Wednesday as she issued sweeping new recommendations to help limit the spread of COVID-19., recommendations that Mayor John Tory says amount to “locking the city down as much as any municipal government possibly could.”
De Villa said that she is recommending “in the strongest possible terms” that all Torontonians remain in their homes, except for medical appointments, to shop for groceries no more than once a week or to walk their dogs or get exercise.
“It is my belief that these measures need to be in place for up to 12 weeks. But I would tell you that how long these measures need to be in place and how successful we are in terms of controlling the virus spread is entirely in our hands,” she said. “The more we are able to put these measures into place and the more we are able as a community to adhere to these recommendations the shorter will be the duration of these measures and the more effective we will be at reducing the loss of lives in our community.”
De Villa said that there have been 653 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city as of Wednesday afternoon and 165 probable cases, including 35 that have required treatment in an intensive care unit.
While the city is yet to see the sort of caseloads that have been reported in places like New York City, where more than 1,100 people have died after contracting the virus, de Villa said that the numbers are headed in the wrong direction with the city experiencing a roughly 500 percent increase in confirmed cases over the last two weeks.
“This is not a favourable trajectory and as your medical officer of health I am deeply concerned,” she said. “I realize I depict a very stark picture here. A very stark picture but is one that is honest and true. Given this is our current situation it is my belief that we must absolutely implement stronger measures to avoid the type of results we are seeing in places like New York City.”
‘A very long battle’
The City of Toronto had previously cancelled the permits for all major events and festivals through June 30, though de Villa’s recommendations further reinforce the fact that life as we know it could look different for some time.
Speaking directly to Torontonians during Wednesday’s news conference, Mayor John Tory said that the number of COVID-19 cases in the city is headed in “the wrong direction” and it is now “absolutely clear that this is going to be a very long battle.”
“I believe most people want this over as soon as possible and if given the choice they will do what it takes to end this situation at the earliest possible date which being candid likely does mean the 12 weeks referred to by Dr. de Villa,” he said. “You want to go and visit and give a hug to your mother or grandmother as soon as you can, you want to go to a restaurant and sit on the patio and have a beer, you want to watch your kids once again able to play on a playground without restriction and you want to go to a Blue Jays game or hang out on the beach with friends but getting to those better days will depend on our collective response as a city. We have it in our control to make those better days come sooner.”
The Province of Ontario has already ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses through April 13 and has also prohibited any organized gatherings of five or more people.
Tory said that the recommendations made by de-Villa “give us the best possible chance of avoiding a fate such as that being experienced in New York City” but he conceded that they are “strong medicine.”
The city has said that the loss to its retail sector alone over the last two weeks is believed to be about $291 million.
Tory added that while other levels of government could put more restrictive shelter-in-place orders in place, the city has now done almost everything it can do “within the powers and authorities of a municipal government to address the spread of the virus.”
Tory has asked that a bylaw be drafted to enforce social distancing
De Villa’s recommendations do not come in the form of orders but she said that she believes she is using the powers available to her to “the fullest extent possible,” something that has been backed up by legal counsel.
For his part, Tory said that he has asked staff to draft a bylaw to “enforce social distancing limits.”
He said that he doesn’t believe that a bylaw needs to be put into place at this moment but warned that it could be introduced should concern persist around people carrying on with their lives as normal amid the pandemic.
Past that the city may not have many measures left in its toolbox, as Tory pointed out that de Villa’s latest recommendations mean that city hall has now done almost everything it can do “within the powers and authorities of a municipal government to address the spread of the virus.”
“Of course it (the bylaw) could apply only to city property but that is a large part of the city and includes the sidewalks, the streets, the parks and different places like that,” he said. “Of course any bylaw does have to contain some sanctions in the event that people don’t follow it and of course there would have to be some enforcement. But again, our strong wish is that we should police ourselves and make sure we are all doing what we are being asked to do. I just hope that we don’t need to pass a bylaw that tells people the obvious.”
Tory has previously raised concerns about large crowds of people continuing to gather in parks and along the city’s waterfront.