theatre closed
© CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters
A movie theatre owned by Famous Players, a subsidiary of Cineplex Entertainment, remains closed due to COVID-19 restrictions in Toronto on April 6, 2021.
The Ontario government has issued a provincewide stay-at-home order while expanding vaccine eligibility in high-risk neighbourhoods, but critics say the province has been too slow to control fast-spreading COVID-19 variants that are threatening the health care system.

The order was unveiled by Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday, less than a week after his government announced what it called a "shutdown" that closed restaurant dining but allowed non-essential retailers to stay open - and left pandemic rules in hotspots such as Toronto and Peel Region virtually untouched.

After public pushback from medical officers of health in Toronto, Peel and Ottawa, Mr. Ford's cabinet made an abrupt turnaround, declaring a third state of emergency and ordering more closings. The stay-at-home order takes effect Thursday at 12:01 a.m. and is to last four weeks.

"The reality is, despite everything we've done so far, the COVID-19 situation in Ontario is getting worse as these new variants continue to spread," Mr. Ford said.

The new measures limit retail stores to curbside pickup and delivery and only allow big-box stores to sell essential items such as groceries or pharmacy items. The government also enacted a moratorium on rental evictions during the order, but the province did not announce any new supports for businesses or paid sick leave, which health professionals and municipal officials have said is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Opposition leaders at Queen's Park criticized the Premier for acting too slowly to contain the third wave - and being too quick to reopen the province weeks ago. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford should have brought in enhanced sick pay and other measures to protect workers: "Stay-at-home orders do not protect people who cannot work from home."

Mr. Ford accused his critics of "playing politics," saying a federal benefits program - widely criticized as inadequate - was enough to compensate workers who take time off to isolate with COVID-19.

In much of the province, schools and child-care centres will also remain open, although local health officials in both Toronto and Peel Region have shuttered their schools for at least two weeks in the face of rising COVID-19 cases.

Medical experts and opposition politicians have been calling for stricter measures for weeks. Just last week, the province's own science advisory table said a stay-at-home order was needed to contain the spread - but the province announced its "shutdown" instead.

On Wednesday, both the Premier and Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said intensive-care admission numbers have gone up more quickly in recent days than predicted, prompting the call for new measures.

The province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table presented modeling last week projecting as many as 600 COVID-19 ICU patients across the province by April 9, which is more than the 501 counted as of late Tuesday - a number itself well past the previous second-wave peak and levels hospitals say are sustainable. But Dr. Williams said he was concerned that in just the past few days, ICU admissions were rising faster than new infections.

The pressure on ICUs has already forced the postponing of about 250,000 surgeries and the helicoptering of hundreds of patients from packed hotspot hospitals to others with capacity. ICU doctors and the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) have been warning for months they were facing a crisis, and that if ICU space completely runs out, an emergency triage protocol may be enacted that would see patients prioritized for life-saving care based on their chances of survival.

Anthony Dale, president and chief executive officer of the OHA, welcomed the stay-at-home order: "These measures are essential to regain control of this virus. The next several weeks in hospitals and intensive-care units will be very difficult indeed."

Still, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business condemned the new closings, calling Ontario the "lockdown capital of North America" and said small stores, salons and restaurants were not causing COVID-19 to spread.

After increasing pressure to revamp its vaccine rollout plan to reach more people in areas hard-hit by COVID-19, the government announced it is expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults 18 and over in high-risk neighbourhoods, starting with Peel and Toronto. But government officials said only those 50 and over will able to register using the province's online booking system.

For the rest, the province said it will soon dispatch mobile teams to high-risk congregate settings, residential buildings, faith-based locations and large employers in those areas.

In addition, Ontario is also opening up vaccinations for special education workers across the province, and for education staff in high-risk neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel, starting during next week's April break.

In a separate news conference on Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the April break was a "window of opportunity to really get these vaccines into the arms" of educators.

There are 36,000 staff provincewide who work directly with students with special needs. In Toronto and Peel, there are 71,000 teachers and school staff, but only a portion of them work in hotspots and would be eligible. Mr. Lecce also said the government was adding "new protocols" for when students return to school after the April break, including testing and enhanced on-site screening for students.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce, said educators and school staff who live in hotspots but work in a different community are eligible, as are those who live elsewhere but work in those hotspot communities.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown praised the decision to expand eligibility rules for vaccines, saying the province has to reach essential workers in their places of employment.

Still, he called for an enhanced, faster paid sick-leave program and said both the federal government and province are to blame.

"We've been a broken record calling for it. ... The province says that it's the federal government, the federal government say they have a benefit. And they're both wrong."