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Doug Ford ready to lower crowd-size limits and introduce bigger fines as Ontario’s COVID-19 cases climb

Doug Ford ready to lower crowd-size limits and introduce bigger fines as Ontario’s COVID-19 cases climb
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If you live in a COVID-19 hot spot, Doug Ford is about to shrink your world as Ontario hit another recent high with 315 new infections, more than triple the level of a month ago.

Ontario’s premier said he’s poised to lower the size of social gatherings allowed in Toronto, Peel and Ottawa — and to slap heavier penalties on scofflaws in a bid to slow what one of his top medical advisers called the “frankly distressing” trajectory of the pandemic.

“We’re going to act quickly on this and, yes, there will be fines,” Ford said Wednesday before a cabinet meeting to discuss cutting the maximum crowd sizes of 50 indoors and 100 outdoors, including physical distancing of at least two metres.

The pending move follows multiple reports of the highly contagious virus spreading at weddings, funerals, family gatherings and other social events in private homes and backyards.

“There’s going to be some severe, severe fines for people who want to ignore the regulations and the guidelines,” Ford added, promising the penalties will be “the highest in the country” and under provincial jurisdiction.

Current fines for individuals range from $750 to $100,000 with up to a year in jail upon conviction, rising to a maximum of $500,000 and one year for directors or officers of a corporation and $10 million for corporations.

Action is long overdue given the sharp rise in cases since mid-August and a sudden increase in lines for COVID-19 tests, opposition parties said, pointing to frequent admonitions from the premier for people to stop having parties with people outside their social circle.

“The premier’s tough words and lack of action are starting to wear thin,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown applauded any effort to slash crowd sizes.

“There is no need for 100-person residential social gatherings during a pandemic,” he wrote on Twitter, while Toronto Mayor John Tory said enhanced enforcement and expanded requirements for masks are also key to preventing a return to lockdowns.

“We have to get the message across,” Tory told a news conference. “Those who do not want to get with the program should pay a price for that.”

The 315 new infections reported by the Ministry of Health as of 4 p.m. Tuesday were the most in one day since early June and marked the second time this week cases have topped 300. There were 12 new infections of students and staff in schools. A new case linked to two previous ones at Fellowes High School in Pembroke prompted the health unit in Renfrew County to order it closed immediately to in-person learning.

Meanwhile, the province launched a detailed new self-assessment tool for students, parents, teaches and school staff to use every morning at ontario.ca/covid19

During the legislature’s daily question period, Ford came under attack for long lineups at COVID-19 assessment centres and for the absence of public hearings by the commission of inquiry he appointed into the pandemic’s hefty death toll in nursing homes.

Health Minister Christine Elliott acknowledged many Ontarians are waiting “inordinate lengths of time” for tests and pledged to increase the number of assessment centres from the 148 now in operation or to increase the hours they are open, and to boost the capacity of labs to process 50,000 tests daily in “the next month or so.” That’s about 20,000 more than can be handled currently.

The long lines for tests show the Progressive Conservative government has failed to “get ahead” of the situation to better fend off a second wave, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

“We weren’t caught off guard,” Ford insisted, saying “thousands” of new testing locations in will be open in pharmacies “very soon.” He stressed they are intended for Ontarians without symptoms, leaving assessment centres often located at hospitals for people with possible signs of the novel coronavirus.

With new cases rising in nursing homes that were devastated by COVID-19 last spring, Horwath said the commission Ford appointed to investigate the tragedy is doing its work “in secret” with no public hearings to “sweep the corpses of these people under the rug.”
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