As the number of COVID-19 cases in Niagara rose this week, Lord Mayor Betty Disero is adding her voice to the Region’s top public health officials, asking residents to take measures to reduce the spread of the virus and avoid further restrictions.
Last week, the Province turned to the colour system to place each of Ontario’s public health units into one of five different colour-coded categories, based on the level of virus spread and hospital capacity in each area. The categories determine the restrictions placed on each area.
Niagara was placed in the yellow zone, with more relaxed restrictions than orange, but was on the cusp of the orange designation, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, said Friday.
With a jump of 63 cases Tuesday, at press time, the Region was still categorized as yellow, but could change at any time.
Code yellow, which the Province calls the “prevent” stage, hadn’t meant any major changes for the Region early this week, but a move to orange would increase restrictions, Hirji warned, calling for residents to change their behaviours to prevent that from happening.
During Monday’s Niagara-on-the-Lake planning committee meeting of councillors, Disero passed on suggestions from Public Health to keep Niagara from seeing further increases, which included asking people “with the mildest symptoms” to self-isolate and get tested.
She asked workplaces to do “active screening” of symptoms, and for people to avoid crowds, and “stay two metres away from anyone you don’t live with.”
NOTL residents were also asked not to visit high-count areas such as Toronto.
Last week, five new cases in NOTL were attributed to people who work at the outlet mall in Glendale, and one more NOTL case was recorded Tuesday, bringing the total number to 59.
Disero also passed on her own suggestions, which include wearing a mask outside, “just for now, when numbers are increasing.”
She asked residents to wipe down their home counters and other areas frequently, use hand sanitizers and perhaps wear a mask inside, if anyone in the household exhibits symptoms.
Also discussed at Monday’s meeting was the large number of visitors who took advantage of the good weather and came to NOTL last weekend. Vehicle counters recorded about 14,000 vehicles, almost double the weekend before, which was about 7,500.
Ambassador volunteers are wearing masks and shields themselves, and as they welcome visitors to town, are asking them to wear masks, Disero said.
Coun. Gary Burroughs asked what could be done about the number of visitors from high-count areas such as Peel Region and Quebec, but was told that without provincial orders for people not to travel, there is no way to stop them from coming to NOTL.
The goal, said Disero, is for residents of NOTL to “stay as safe as they can by protecting themselves and each other. We can’t stop others from coming here.”
Niagara Public Health reported 34 new cases on Saturday, 21 on Sunday, and a jump to 63 on Tuesday, of which 45 were attributed to a farming operation in the Town of Lincoln.
But apart from that workplace outbreak, Hirji has been focusing on cases in the community among young people, and how to curtail them.
He says coming down hard on businesses is not the answer, and bylaw enforcement of current regulations is difficult, already putting a strain on municipal budgets. With the need to balance the economic recovery of local businesses while reducing the spread of the virus, Hirji is hoping Niagara residents will change their behaviour by voluntarily reducing their social interactions. He called on those in the 20 to 40-year-old age group to stay away from bars and stop holding large house parties.
A lockdown early in the pandemic resulted in reducing the number of cases in the Province and allowing for staged reopenings, Hirji said, but “what we’re doing now in Niagara isn’t enough quite yet.”
While the rising numbers last week put the region near the orange zone, the good news, in terms of the colour-coding metrics, is that “hospital capacity doesn’t seem to be stretched,” he said.
However, contact tracing staff are being stretched, he said.
Referencing recent outbreaks that resulted in about 40 cases involving a group of people with an average age of 24, Hirji said COVID spread across eight Niagara municipalities and more than 100 locations, including bars, restaurants, stores, sports teams, families, and two long-term care homes. It caused the need for contact tracing of about 230 people.
It’s not a matter of businesses doing anything wrong, he said, and rather than tightening restrictions, which would seem a punishment to business owners, he is relying on people to control their social behaviour.
If nothing changes, and cases continue to rise, there are restrictions the Region can implement in addition to what the Province has instituted, Hirji said.