Toronto and Peel residents, living in a lockdown stage with restaurants and non-essential stores closed, could be flocking to Niagara this weekend to enjoy activities not available to them at home.
Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, says even those living in red-zone regions, such as Halton and Hamilton, “where dining is curtailed,” could find Niagara an attractive place to visit.
He says he’s worried about Black Friday, a popular shopping day, and the weekend coming up, the first since tougher COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in other areas.
One of his chief concerns is the outlet mall in Niagara-on-the-Lake, although passing by someone shopping, especially if wearing a mask, doesn’t represent as great a threat as eating in a restaurant.
“People aren’t coming together in fellowship with others” in that situation, the way they are if they are dining together, he says.
However, if the mall gets busy, it may be difficult to keep a two-metre distance. “If it gets crowded, it becomes a risk.”
This week, public health officials were reminding retail outlets of the restrictions in place, and offering some recommendations for controlling crowds, including limiting the number of people in stores if necessary, making sure people lining up are two metres apart, and are wearing masks.
The message from the Province is for people to stay home and not travel to other regions, but young people, while a diverse group, may be more likely to put themselves at risk, are also less likely to follow the rules and think about the safety of others, Hirji says.
“They might be more likely to defy the Province and come here. That is a concern.”
Hirji, who admits that last week was an “active” one for him, with intense criticism from restaurant owners and regional council’s heated discussion in opposition to limiting restaurant tables to one household, says this week has been a little quieter.
He explains the recommendation from regional councillors to rescind the specific household restriction is one he will consider, along with all the other layers of information, including comments from business owners, as he reviews the measures he has instituted. But at the beginning of the week, he wasn’t seeing anything that would change his mind.
In the long run, he says, he has to make his decision “at arms length from political influence,” and based on the public health and safety.
The best reason to rescind the restriction, he says, will be seeing the numbers of COVID cases coming down, hopefully moving the region, now in the orange stage, further away from red and into the yellow zone.
The recent outbreaks that were traced back to young people in restaurants did not result in fines, he says. It wasn’t just one situation or one restaurant, “but a pattern of circumstances.”
“We’re trying to educate in those cases,” however, if those restaurant names show up a second time, there might be cause to consider a punishment, he added.
Health inspectors are visiting restaurants to ensure COVID-related requirements are being followed, but their priority is education.
However, bylaw and business licensing officers have levied $750 fines against businesses for infractions such as staff not wearing masks, music playing too loud, and patrons not staying at their tables, he says.
He expects his recent order “will ensure households will dine alone, and will limit the ability to spread the virus in Niagara,” leaving the region “relatively untouched” because of it.
The region actually crossed the threshold from orange to red in one of the measures that is considered, he says. “We were right on the line of red, and we crossed over on one metric, the number of cases per week per population. We were above the threshold, but we’ve pulled away.”
He hopes to see the region in the yellow zone by Christmas, he added.