As the Ontario government begins their work to reopen the provincial economy, Acting Medical Officer of Health for the Northwestern Health Unit, Dr. Ian Gemmill, says it’s still early in the fight against COVID-19.

“In this pandemic, we are not in the seventh inning. We’re in the first inning, and the first batter is up. That’s how far along we are. This is something that’s going to be with us for a while.”

Ontario’s government is currently planning a stage-by-stage approach to reopen the economy, to ensure there are appropriate measures in place so workplaces can open safely. Premier Doug Ford made the announcement earlier this week.

"Our top priority remains protecting the health and safety of the people of Ontario and supporting our frontline heroes as we do everything in our power to contain and defeat this deadly virus," said Ford.

"At the same time, we are preparing for the responsible restart of our economy. This next phase of our response to COVID-19 is designed to help us map out what needs to be done, and when, to get us back on the road to recovery."

Public health officials will carefully monitor each stage for two to four weeks, as they assess the evolution of the COVID-19 outbreak to determine if it is necessary to change course to maintain public health.

Gemmill says the easing of the restrictions do bring some benefits, but they must be done with caution and a number of precautions in place to keep communities as safe as possible from COVID-19.

“Whatever opens up, still needs to be done with the Coronavirus in mind. But this is a good thing in the sense that we want there to be not only physical health for Ontario residents, but economic health for our population. We know what happens when people are impoverished from circumstances beyond their control.”

However, as some politicians and local leaders have pitched the idea of opening Northern Ontario up earlier than the rest of the province, Gemmill say’s it also has some merit, but it’s not worth the risk.

“In the northwest, we don’t have good evidence of local transmission. So there is merit to it. But I would be very worried at this point in time if we went ahead with a separate plan for the north, and then discovering that we were in the middle of community transmission.”

“We would not want to find ourselves in that situation with an outbreak, when everyone else is reopening, and that will take things that much longer to open up locally. There’s merit to the point of view, but in my opinion, the preferred way to do this would be to be in-step with the rest of the province.”

Gemmill says the idea is typically linked to Northern Ontario and northwestern Ontario both seeing very low numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but Gemmill notes that these numbers are constantly being updated.

“There’s two possibilities here. One is that the restrictions in place were so effective in the northwest, that it stopped a wave of COVID-19 from arriving. That’s what I’m hoping is correct. The second, is that the restrictions are simply delaying the wave. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t want to see things opened up and see ourselves in a situation where we are in trouble.”

Ontario’s plan to reopen the economy includes:

Stage 1: For businesses that were ordered to close or restrict operations, opening select workplaces that can immediately modify operations to meet public health guidance. Opening some outdoor spaces like parks and allowing for a greater number of individuals to attend some events. Hospitals would also begin to offer some non-urgent and scheduled surgeries, and other health care services.

Stage 2: Opening more workplaces, based on risk assessments, which may include some service industries and additional office and retail workplaces. Some larger public gatherings would be allowed, and more outdoor spaces would open.

Stage 3: Opening of all workplaces responsibly and further relaxing of restrictions on public gatherings.

Throughout each stage, continued protections for vulnerable populations must be in place, along with the continued practice of physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory hygiene, and significant mitigation plans to limit health risks.