A change by the provincial government to COVID-19 data thresholds more consistent with public health and scientific advice means Niagara enters more restrictive pandemic status on Monday morning.
Starting at 12:01 am Monday, the area will move from its current status of yellow, or “protect”, to the orange “restrict” level, which places new limits on restaurants, bars, sports and recreational facilities and meeting places. The region will remain in this area for at least 28 days.
The new statute is more restrictive than a recent Niagara public health ordinance for bars and restaurants, which goes into effect Saturday morning, but does not entirely replace local guidelines.
The amber alert reduces the maximum occupancy of restaurants and bars, limits the number of people who can sit at a table, reduces the opening hours and the duration of alcohol service.
It sets the occupancy limits for the gyms and clients can only stay 90 minutes.
In both restaurants and gyms, customers must be screened for COVID-19 upon arrival.
The new measures were announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Friday afternoon, the day after The Toronto Star revealed that the provincial government had rejected Public Health Ontario’s advice on the four statuses of COVID-19 control measures.
“We must always be prepared to change course as the situation evolves,” Ford said at a press briefing on Friday. “We’re looking at the barrel of another lockdown.”
The provincial government has moved targets for regional pandemic measures that would trigger the activation of a new level of restrictions, lowering key thresholds that will prompt such measures sooner.
When the four-color model was announced, Niagara was placed on Yellow Alert, which was effectively the status quo for the region since the province moved it to Stage 3 of its economic reopening plan.
But for several key indicators, including the percentage of positive tests, the number of people who can be infected by one person – called the effective reproduction rate – and the number of cases per 100,000 people were either at the maximum thresholds for code yellow, either had exceeded them.
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr Mustafa Hirji, said Thursday that Niagara was on the verge of going on amber alert and that he was not surprised that the reshuffle of data thresholds resulted in a change for Niagara.
Hirji said that while the move to the orange alert places greater restrictions than he is willing to impose due to the increased economic hardship it will bring, it remains an open question whether this will be enough to alleviate. Niagara’s COVID-19 infection.
“In the large municipalities that were already effectively at this stage (including Ottawa, Toronto and Peel), this has not had the effect of reducing those infection rates,” Hirji said Friday.
However, Niagara has more rural communities than these large centers, which could help the region reduce its rate of infection.
He warned, however, that if the community did not agree to physical distancing, wearing masks and washing hands, the infection rate would continue to accelerate. This could potentially see Niagara move to a more restrictive Red Alert.
“It’s hard for me to know how the government makes decisions, but they look at the data every Friday, so we’ll see what the data says next week,” Hirji said.
The orange alert restrictions will work largely in concert with the measures ordered by Hirji on Friday.
These measures require restaurants and bars to confirm with patrons that they are dining with members of their immediate household or no more than one or two people who are a “critical contact”, which includes caregivers or the healthcare partner. ‘a person living alone.
Hirji’s order did not require more than six people at a table and did not talk about the opening hours or maximum total occupancy of a restaurant.
Orange alert sets limit of four per table, closing time is 10 p.m. and prohibits serving alcohol after 9 p.m.
ORANGE COVID ALERT: What it means.
The government lowered the thresholds for key indicators that determine the COVID-19 alert status in a region on Friday.
Niagara had reached or exceeded the levels that previously defined the yellow alert. In the new system, the data puts Niagara squarely in the orange level.
For example, the new yellow alert defines the number of cases per 100,000 people between 10 and 25.9. Niagara’s rate is currently 42,6, which is always above the maximum orange alert of 39.9.
The percentage of positive tests in Niagara is 2.4, just at the maximum level for code orange.
In other metrics, including hospital and public health capacity, data shows Niagara in yellow or green areas.
What does it mean?
The orange alert places new limits on several businesses, including restaurants and gyms, for 28 days from Monday.
Restaurants and bars cannot have maximum of 50 clients, with a maximum of four people per table. These tables must be at least two meters from each other. Institutions must close at 10 p.m. and stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m.
Gyms also have a maximum occupancy of 50 people, and customers can only stay 90 minutes.
In the case of bars, restaurants and gyms, guests should be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.
What about the public health order?
Niagara Public Health requires restaurants and bars to confirm patrons are with members of their immediate households – Until four people on orange alert – or a maximum of two essential contacts. The order takes effect on Saturday.