Premier Ford reverses decision to close Ontario playgrounds amid backlash

TORONTO — The Ontario government is reversing restrictions on playgrounds as one Toronto infectious diseases doctor called the closing down of outdoor spaces, including playgrounds, across Ontario the wrong move in the fight against COVID-19.

“Our regulations will be amended to allow playgrounds, but gatherings outside will still be enforced. Play outside safely. Parents keep your distance & wear masks if you can’t,” Ford tweeted Saturday afternoon.

Yesterday, the Ford government announced new restrictions to combat rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations amid the third wave of the virus.

The new restrictions include prohibiting interprovincial travel except for essential purposes, shutting down non-essential construction, giving police the power to question people who are outside of their homes and closures of all outdoor recreational amenities.

Closures of these outdoor spaces, including playgrounds, golf courses and basketball courts, came into effect on Saturday.

Infectious diseases specialist at Trillium Health Partners Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti says shutting down outdoor recreational spaces is not the right move to take.

“Right now unfortunately, apart from vaccination and, you know, some stuff in workplaces, there’s not a lot of levers left to pull. And you know what you have to do is not make things worse and by, you know, driving people indoors, which is what these new rules will do, it’s actually going to make the problem worse,” Chakrabarti told CP24 on Saturday.

Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet met late into the night on Thursday and again on Friday morning to consider the new restrictions before announcing them.

When speaking to reporters later on Friday, Ford said there were only a few options left for his government in response to rising infections and all of them come with “a massive cost to people in their lives.”

“I have never shied away from telling you the brutal, honest truth, never shied away from tough decisions and today I am here to do just that. My friends, we are losing the battle between variants and vaccines,” Ford said.

Along with the new measures, Ford extended the current stay-at-home order, which came into effect on Apr. 8, for two more weeks. The order is now set to last until at least May 20.

Chakrabarti says closing outdoor spaces might appear to be a solution but will only cause people to gather indoors instead.

“I call this the visibility bias. When people see people in a park they [say] ‘oh no this is going to be a site of transmission,’ and it’s something you can see. But now when you drive all those people indoors, you don’t see it anymore, but now there’s much more transmission occurring.”

He says people need safe alternatives to avoid congregating indoors and allowing people outdoors is the way to go.

Chakrabarti adds that most of the COVID-patients he has treated contracted the virus from indoor settings.

“I’ve seen so many COVID patients and all of them have the same story. It is heavy, indoor transmission. And that’s coming from either a workplace, a high-density workplace in manufacturing or industry, or a family member of that person,” Chakrabarti says.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who sits on Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, agrees with Chakrabarti and says outdoor activities are vital right now.

“Ontario’s closure of outdoor recreational activities (including pickleball!) to control #COVID19 does not make sense,” Bogoch tweeted on Saturday.

“Outdoor activities are vital for mental & physical health, especially with stay-at-home orders. Science is clear: Outdoor COVID transmission is extremely rare.”

A petition to open Ontario playgrounds has already surfaced online with more than 1,000 people signing as of Saturday morning. 

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