Ontario premier warns Quebecers will come ‘in droves’ if Ottawa’s not in lockdown

MONTREAL — As Ontario’s premier fielded criticism Monday over plans to do a province-wide lockdown, he repeated — twice — one of his main worries: Quebecers.

More specifically, Premier Doug Ford suggested that non-essential services needed to be closed in eastern Ontario as well as southern Ontario, where COVID-19 cases are much higher, because it’s near the Quebec border.

Quebec is set to enter its own “pause,” as Premier François Legault has called it, on Christmas Day. Non-essential services will be shut across the province until Jan. 11.

Ford seemed to say that if Ottawa doesn’t do the same, at the same time, Quebecers will drive there.

“We also know Quebec is shutting down,” Ford said in a press conference Monday.

“So areas like Ottawa… will be at tremendous risk over the holidays of people flooding in across the border if they stay open.”

He said that Ontarians “have seen it before in Ottawa from the Quebecers, and we love Quebecers, but they’ll be flowing into Ottawa.”

Ford didn’t provide much more detail on what he was referring to in terms of seeing that happen in the past — a surge in cross-border traffic causing a COVID-19 spike in Ontario.

However, he repeated the same argument later, nearly word for word.

“We’ve seen it before,” he said.

“When we open up and Quebec closes down, guess what happens. We have the Quebecers—nothing against Quebecers, I love the Quebecers—but they’ll come over here in droves.”

He added that COVID-19 numbers “will be driven back up.”

Case counts in Ottawa are much lower than in Quebec and much of the rest of Ontario. On Sunday, for example, Ottawa had just 39 new cases to report, giving it a weekly average of 28.8 daily cases per 100,000 population.

Quebec as a whole has a seven-day average rate of 154 daily cases per 100,000 population as of today, while Ontario as a whole has 108.

ARE BORDER CHECKPOINTS COMING BACK?

There’s been no suggestion that the border between Ontario and Quebec will be closed down again, as a portion of it was in the spring.

In early April, police checkpoints were set up between Ottawa and Gatineau, sister cities separated by only a river, to limit traffic between the provinces to a minimum.

Bringing those back would require a decision within Quebec. Legault’s office told CTV News that provincial public health officials would be the ones to make that call, but that there have been no discussions about it.

On Monday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said there’s “no hard evidence” that Quebecers are coming to Ottawa “in droves.”

Gatineau, across the river, has had much higher rates than Ottawa for weeks. The Outaouais region has been mixed between “orange” and “red” zones under Quebec’s COVID-19 system, with significant restrictions, for months.

This fall, Watson told CTV Morning Live that the goal has usually been to stop problematic cross-border traffic in the opposite direction — Ontarians flooding into harder-hit Quebec and risking bringing the virus back with them.

“I think in the past what had happened was our restaurants and bars would close and then the ones in Gatineau would stay open, and then people from Ottawa would go over there irresponsibly, in my opinion, and then come back potentially with the virus and spread it here,” said Watson.

He also said he didn’t think the checkpoints worked very well, they were expensive to maintain, and he had no plans to request the same thing again.

“There were so many gaps when the police were not there, and people just figured out I’ll go at an earlier time or a later time,” Watson said.

“We saw police officers sticking their heads in the car with no masks, so that was not healthy for those individuals.”

Still, after Ford’s announcement Monday, Watson pushed back on the imposition of a lockdown on Ottawa, saying the case count doesn’t justify it, and he also said that if Ford really believes Quebec is the problem, he should shut down the border instead of Ottawa businesses.

“If the province feels that that’s one of the driving forces to COVID, then they should take that initiative,” Mayor Watson said.

“They have their own police force and, frankly, they have the jurisdiction more than I would, from a constitutional point of view, to let people in and out of the province. The ball is in their court. If they feel that is the problem, they should act on it.”

JUST DON’T TRAVEL, SAYS LEGAULT

When asked Monday for reaction to Ford’s comments, Legault’s office responded with a statement urging everyone to avoid travel this Christmas.

“Like Quebec, Ontario faces challenges,” said the statement sent by Legault’s spokesperson.

“Community transmission must not increase due to travellers, whether in Quebec or Ontario. We repeat: now is not the time to travel. Stay home,” he wrote.

“The situation is extremely fragile in Quebec and we cannot tolerate people travelling in a carefree manner and afflicting our health system more.”

–With files from CTV Ottawa’s Ted Raymond

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