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Ontario's new restrictions on outdoor gatherings raise eyebrows

Public health experts are raising their eyebrows at Ontario’s decision to close recreational facilities, saying science shows COVID-19 transmission outside is extremely rare.

The experts also note that outdoor activities are vital for physical and mental health, especially during a stay-at-home order.

The measures announced Friday by Premier Doug Ford included the closure of all outdoor recreational amenities, such as golf courses, basketball courts, soccer fields, and playgrounds.

Premier Doug Ford began rolling some of those measures back on Saturday hours after they took effect, saying the rules will be amended to allow playgrounds to stay open. 

A government source not authorized to speak publicly also told The Canadian Press that a “scoping-down clarification” was in the works to amend sweeping new police powers meant to enforce the new public health measures.

Under the new restrictions, which are meant to bolster the province’s losing battle against the global pandemic, only members of the same household would be allowed to congregate outdoors.

Infectious disease experts had previously described the decision to close playgrounds and other outdoor recreation spaces as puzzling and potentially ineffective. 

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician with St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said limiting outdoor gatherings could “shoot (the government) in the foot.”

He said it could push people who would otherwise gather outdoors to congregate inside, where they won’t be so easily detected by police. 

“It’s a whole lot easier, when you’re talking about enforcement rules with police, to actually just congregate indoors away from the watchful eye,” he said. “If you start forcing people indoors — where they’re not being watched, where they can congregate easily — you’re defeating the point of these restrictions.”

He pointed to a study out of Ireland that found that even during an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the U.K., just 0.1 per cent of cases originated outdoors.

“So 99.9 per cent are associated with the indoors,” he said.

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease physician with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., tweeted that the move is “fraught with visibility bias.” 

He said it is “not a good risk mitigation strategy.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who sits on the province's COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force, also slammed the outdoor closures. 

“Ontario’s closure of outdoor recreational activities, saying the move does not make scientific sense.

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

Golf courses are among the facilities included in the latest round of provincial closures. 

The news came as a disappointment to Brian Decker, director of communications with TPC Toronto, home to three golf courses. 

“There’s been a lot of messaging about encouraging people to get outside, and golf has been a safe way to do that,” he said. “Golf is really the perfect sport for this kind of situation.”

But he said he understands the need for the government to take action, and TPC Toronto will comply with the new measures. 

That means closing the courses immediately after officially opening to annual members — a bitter pill to swallow. 

The golf course had just hired and trained new staff and ordered inventory for what little food and beverage service they were allowed to offer, he said. 

“You prepare for business and the very same day that you open, you find out you have to close again.”  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2021. 

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press