Frontline workers arrive at a vaccination site in Toronto on Jan. 18, 2021.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The top public-health officials in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region are urging the province to delay by at least two weeks its rollback of COVID-19 restrictions planned for Monday, arguing the number of variant cases is growing fast.

The stark warning from the most populous part of the country comes after Ontario has eased measures in the rest of the province, and Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba have lifted restrictions and reopened many businesses. In Newfoundland and Labrador, however, the number of variant cases has exploded, leading to new restrictions and the postponement of a provincial election.

Eileen de Villa, the Medical Officer of Health for Toronto, cited Newfoundland as an example of how cases of the more transmissible new variants can surge. She said her city is in a “deceptively dangerous situation,” with sagging overall case numbers, but the possibility of “exponential growth” of variants.

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“I have never been as worried about the future as I am today,” she said at a briefing on Wednesday, noting that Toronto had 56 confirmed variant cases, and lab work was under way on 283 suspected cases.

“Today’s variant count is the tip of an iceberg. By the time the confirmed case counts are big enough to shock us, it will be too late to do anything. We will be in a third wave, as bad as anything we’ve been through thus far.”

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Approximately 30 per cent of Ontario’s population lives in Toronto and Peel Region, about 4.3 million people. These residents are currently under what is billed as a stay-at-home order, with a number of exemptions.

Toronto and Peel – along with York Region and North Bay Parry Sound – were to move as early as Monday from the provincial government’s stay-at-home orders to its colour-coded framework guiding business reopenings.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, whose city is part of Peel Region, along with Brampton and Caledon, said she had hoped to enter the framework at the “grey” level next week, which would have allowed stores to open at 25-per-cent capacity. But she said she will heed the advice of Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, Lawrence Loh.

On Wednesday, Dr. Loh said Peel has two different trends going in “vastly opposite directions,” with cases of the original COVID-19 strain going down and variant ones rising. He said variants of concern have gone from five cases to 45 in a little over a week, and 200 more people have screened positive for variants and are awaiting confirmation.

“This rapid growth is alarming,” he said. “Another storm is brewing.”

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Dr. Loh said that while stopping the spread of variants may be impossible, slowing them for a little while longer until more vaccine is available is the right course of action to prevent a third wave.

The Ontario affairs director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business lamented the prospect of extended restrictions.

“To have the regions that have already been locked down for the longest amount of time face a further lockdown with no guarantee of reopening after those two weeks is just very disappointing news,” Ryan Mallough said.

Toronto Mayor John Tory acknowledged that keeping the current rules “will cause continuing hurt for many businesses,” but argued that it was still the best approach.

“We absolutely do not want to find ourselves opening things up, even slightly, and then having to close down again just a few weeks from now,” he said. “With the promise of vaccinations upon us, we need to ensure that this lockdown that we’re presently in is the last one.”

Southern Ontario is in this difficult situation even as some other parts of the country have had some local success in taming virus spread.

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Quebec has gone ahead with some reopening as new daily cases dropped this week to less than one-third of their early January peak. The government’s main focus has been on cutting down on social gatherings, which it says have driven much of the second wave.

In sparsely populated areas of Quebec with low case counts, restaurants and some recreational activities such as movie theatres have resumed operations. And with spring break looming at the start of March, the provincial government announced this week that indoor rinks, pools, libraries and cinemas could reopen with limited crowds even in hot zones such as Montreal.

Alberta and Manitoba recently eased their COVID-19 restrictions after country-leading infection rates late last year. Saskatchewan is the Prairie outlier, with the highest infection rates in the country, but less strict measures than nearby provinces.

The Saskatchewan government imposed limits on social gatherings and reduced the capacity levels for restaurants and bars in December, but most businesses have remained open through the second wave. Premier Scott Moe has argued that stricter measures wouldn’t end the pandemic and suggested the people who are asking for lockdowns wouldn’t be affected because they can work from home.

Toronto’s Dr. de Villa said that while it would be nice to reopen, the “cautious and wise approach” requires patience. She joined Dr. Loh in writing a letter urging the province to reconsider reducing restrictions on Monday. The medical officers of health are calling instead for a two-week pause, followed by an assessment of the situation and a decision then on how to proceed.

In the legislature on Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford said the government is “determining if [the stay-at-home order is] going to go for another couple of weeks, based on the advice from their local medical officers of health, and we’re going to listen to that.”

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Ontario had 847 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday.

With reports from James Keller and Les Perreaux

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