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Smaller holiday gatherings, new capacity limits as province, city scramble to slow spread of Omicron


“The experts have been clear. Nothing will stop the spread of Omicron. It is just too transmissible.”

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Holiday gatherings will be limited to 10 indoors and 25 outdoors with 50 per cent capacity limits on bars, restaurants and other businesses in Ontario as Omicron cases continue their exponential growth across the province.

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On Friday, both Premier Doug Ford and Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches announced new restrictions on gatherings and capacity in businesses.

The new measures come just days before the Christmas holidays as the rapid surge in cases has overwhelmed testing capacity in Ottawa and elsewhere in the province, muddying the picture of how rapidly the variant is spreading.

On Friday, Ontario reported 3,124 new cases and Ottawa confirmed 309 new cases, up from 199 cases a day earlier. Just weeks after it was first identified, the highly transmissible Omicron variant is now dominant in the province.

A late Friday announcement by Ford and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, came just a day after the province’s science advisory table released dire models showing cases would climb above 10,000 within days without a “circuit breaker’ to reduce peoples’ contacts by 50 per cent and to blunt transmission. The science table also warned that intensive care units could become unsustainable by early January without strong public health measures.

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“The experts have been clear. Nothing will stop the spread of Omicron. It is just too transmissible,” Ford said. “What we can do is slow it as much as possible to allow time for shots to get into arms.”

Ford, who had seen the science table modelling earlier in the week, faced questions about why the government didn’t act sooner on capacity limits. On Wednesday, Ford announced a vaccination and testing blitz and reduced capacity only at venues that hold more than 1,000 people, such as hockey arenas.

The new measures will limit capacity to 50 per cent in restaurants, bars and food and drink establishments, personal-care services, retailers including grocery stores and pharmacies, shopping malls, sports and recreation facilities, among other businesses.

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The limits do not apply to wedding ceremonies, funeral services or religious services. But 50 per cent capacity limits announced earlier Friday by Etches through a Letter of Instruction do apply to religious services. Etches, who announced the restrictions prior to Ford’s media conference, said the most severe of the overlapping restrictions would apply in Ottawa.

The province limited the number of people who can sit at tables in bars and restaurants to 10 and they must remain seated. In Ottawa, Etches’ ruling limits people to six per table in restaurants.

In addition, the province is prohibiting food or drink service at sporting events, concerts, cinemas, casinos and other establishments. The sale of alcohol ends at 10 p.m.

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The new restrictions come into effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Etches said the rapid increase in daily COVID-19 cases in Ottawa was concerning as Omicron has spread rapidly through the city. She said she is concerned the steep rise in cases being seen now will be followed by an increase in hospitalization that will be difficult to handle.

In addition to capacity restrictions, she called on employers to allow workers to work from home if possible.

The spread of Omicron has already overwhelmed testing capacity in Ottawa. Sources have told this newspaper there are discussions about restricting gold-standard PCR testing to health-care workers and the most vulnerable, relying on rapid tests or self isolation for everyone else.

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Etches said officials were working to come up with solutions. For now, she advised people with symptoms to “assume you have COVID-19 and self-isolate.”

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Both Ford and Etches continued to advise everyone eligible to get vaccinated, but Etches acknowledges there will be no new or very few appointments available when everyone over 18 becomes eligible to get a third dose of vaccine as of Monday. Finding enough immunizers is the limiting factor, she said.

Three doses are considered much more protective against Omicron than two doses. The variant appears more adept at evading immunity and even previous infection than previous variants, so much so that the province’s chief medical officer advised a reporter with two doses of vaccine to only visit his elderly, triple-dosed grandparent outdoors over the holidays.

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“I would avoid seeing anyone older, even with two doses,” Moore said.

He acknowledged there are still questions about how virulent the Omicron variant is. So far, he said, of 1,000 cases in province, two individuals are in hospital. He cautioned, though, that cases have so far been concentrated in younger people.

“We are very concerned about how it will affect people who are older,” Moore said, adding he and others are closely watching the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa to better understand the variant’s virulence, among other things.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and others criticized the Ontario government’s effort to distribute rapid tests, with pop-up distributions causing long lines in malls across Toronto and at liquor stores in Ottawa and with many people leaving without tests. Ford said the province was expecting 10 million more rapid tests, but not until Dec. 27.

Both Ford and Etches said it was unclear what the current wave would mean for students’ return to school in January.

“At this point, we are assessing it day by day,” Etches said.

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