Ramped-up COVID precautions return, hampering border crossing, holiday gatherings

Ramped-up COVID precautions return, hampering border crossing, holiday gatherings

Author of the article:

Brian Cross, The Canadian Press

Publishing date:

Dec 17, 2021  •  6 days ago  •  4 minute read  •  39 Comments

This time last year, COVID-19 cases were rising rapidly in Windsor and Essex County, like they are now. And like now, despite education, some businesses weren't following public health rules. Social gatherings were also driving the increases, like they are now.
This time last year, COVID-19 cases were rising rapidly in Windsor and Essex County, like they are now. And like now, despite education, some businesses weren’t following public health rules. Social gatherings were also driving the increases, like they are now. Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS /AFP via Getty Images

The Ontario and federal governments made dramatic moves Friday to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, with Ontario putting a 10-person cap on indoor social gatherings at the peak of the holiday season and reimposing capacity limits for restaurants, bars and retailers.

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The Canadian government, meanwhile, is reintroducing the expensive and onerous testing requirement at the border, after relaxing the rule just three weeks ago for people taking short cross-border trips.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the requirement will return as of Tuesday and that the pre-arrival test must be taken outside of Canada, which is a new rule.

The announcement is expected to impact border communities like Windsor, where lifting the testing requirement at the end of November meant a return to more normal border crossings after 20 months of shutdown for everyone but essential commuters.

For 17-year-old soccer player Avery Comartin, the new requirement could mean that the practice she attended Friday will be her last ever with the high-level Michigan-based team she’s played for since Grade 8.

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“The government puts out these blanket restrictions and yeah, they work for someone who lives in Calgary but they don’t work for people who live on the border and have to cross the border a lot, and the people who make the decision never lived on the border,” Avery’s father Chad said Friday after learning of the new restrictions that will handcuff his family’s ability to get Avery to and from practices and games. He said it’s simply not practical or affordable to get her tested the three or four times a week she goes to play with her team.

The previous shutdown of the border for non-essential travel forced Avery to stop playing for 11 months during a critical time when she was hoping to impress coaches from U.S. colleges and secure her dream of landing an athletic scholarship. In June, she stayed with a Michigan relative so she could play with her team for about a month. Then in the fall she went back to living in Michigan, learning remotely while her friends attended Holy Names high school in person.

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“She was the one kid on a screen, sitting in a basement by herself in Michigan,” her father said, describing how the family earlier paid thousands of dollars to fly her in and out of Michigan via Toronto, even using a helicopter service once. When the testing requirement was lifted and she could return home — and be driven back and forth to games and practices — it was a huge emotional lift, her father said. When they learned Friday that the testing requirement is going to resume, Avery, who recently committed to playing with Ferris State next fall, was downhearted, her father said. She doesn’t want to return to living in Michigan away from family and friends.

“This could be her last practice ever with the team,” said Chad, who commutes daily to his work in Michigan. His wife Donna, he said, hasn’t seen Avery play a game in two years.

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The new Ontario measures, which also include prohibiting food and during consumption at large venues like cinemas and sports arenas, kick into effect Sunday morning. The restrictions will see capacity limited to 50 per cent at such venues as bars, restaurants, indoor clubs, gyms, retailers, recreation centres and malls. Indoor social gatherings are limited to 10, down from 25. Outdoor social gatherings can have no more than 25 people — down from a limit of 100.

The outdoor capacity limit doesn’t apply to the city’s popular Bright Lights Windsor holiday display, according to Andrew Teliszewsky, the mayor’s chief of staff. He said its Jackson Park location isn’t considered a social gathering spot and that masking is required if people can’t maintain two metres of social distancing.

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Bars and restaurants must close by 11 p.m. Dancing and singing is not allowed except for performers. And the sale of alcohol will be restricted after 10 p.m. and consumption won’t be allowed after 11 p.m.

“We’ve all dug so deep and now we have to dig a little deeper,” Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference Friday, adding that his decision to limit people’s ability to get together during the holidays is “an extremely, extremely difficult one to make.”

The announcement comes after the province’s science advisers said a ramped-up booster campaign wouldn’t be enough to blunt the effects of the new COVID-19 variant.

“The experts have been very clear: nothing will stop the spread of Omicron. It’s just too transmissible. What we can do, and what we’re doing, is slowing it as much as possible to allow more time for shots to get into arms,” Ford said.

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Ford said reintroducing these restrictions is the best thing the province can do to prevent schools from being closed to in-person learning after the winter holidays. But he noted it’s still too soon to say whether it will be safe for schools to reopen, given the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

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He also left the door open to tightening restrictions further, saying that the situation was “moving rapidly” and the province was closely monitoring it every day.

Friday also saw the start of a mass handout of free rapid tests across the province. MPP Lisa Gretzky (NDP — Windsor West) called on Ford to provide more in Windsor. Only two area LCBOs are distributing them and both were out of stock late Friday, and there were no pop-up locations like in other cities.
 
“Families in Windsor deserve access to COVID-19 tests to make sure they stay safe and healthy, and don’t spread the virus as they visit with loved ones over the holidays,” said  Gretzky . “Yet with Omicron spreading rapidly, Ford has left Windsor residents unprepared and scrambling to find the rapid tests they need.”

With files from Canadian Press

bcross@postmedia.com

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