Haliburton County is readying to stay at home after an order from Premier Doug Ford Jan. 12 due to rising COVID-19 rates province-wide.

The provincial government issued a state of emergency and stay-at-home order, which will remain in effect for 28 days, demanding people keep put except for critical trips such as grocery shopping, medical appointments, or essential work. Anyone who can work at home must also now do so.

The move comes in response to projections from medical officials which foretell the health system being overwhelmed within weeks. Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health unit acting medical officer of health, Dr. Ian Gemmill, said Jan. 13 the order was critical to control the virus.

“Maybe it should have been put into effect sooner, but these are decisions that are difficult to make and I don’t fault anybody for this,” he said. “Without it, we would be in very serious condition four weeks from now…The most important thing is sending the right message to the public. This is serious.”

Outdoor gatherings will be limited to five people with limited exceptions. The province also indicated it will put a temporary moratorium on residential evictions. Most local construction can continue. For example, residential builds thathad footing permits and had started construction before Jan. 12 can go on. School children when they return to in-person classes will have to wear masks in Grades 1-3 and outdoors at school.

The province said it will empower law enforcement to enforce the order. The order states people should only go out for work, school, child care, obtaining goods if allowed, assisting others, health, safety and legal purposes, travelling outside of the province, care of animals or in limited gatherings.

However, in an FAQ released Jan. 13, it said it would not strictly define what qualifies as “an essential trip.”

“The Government of Ontario cannot determine what is essential for every person in this province, each with their own unique circumstances,” the document said. “We have provided broad categories that people should consider before leaving their home.”

The FAQ also said Ontario is not recommending intra-provincial travel to a cottage, but an essential trip could include emergency maintenance of a secondary residence.

The County has nine cases confirmed over the last two weeks, but only one of them were considered active as of Jan. 14. There were also 31 active cases in Kawartha Lakes and 29 in Northumberland. Gemmill said that even with low case counts in Haliburton, people should act responsibly.

“We know every winter’s virus will reach all areas. I think for that reason, people in no area should think ‘we should not have to worry about this’,” Gemmill said. “The only time we will be able to relax about this is once we have the vaccine to as many arms as possible.”

The Haliburton Family Health Team revealed its positivity rate for the COVID assessment centre Jan. 13. The centre does not cover all tests taken by Haliburtonians and people who test positive there may come from other jurisdictions. But Dr. Judy Suke said a rising positivity rate of 4.6 per cent for the last two weeks, compared to 0.13 per cent in early October, is concerning.

“We encourage your ongoing diligence in adhering to public health measures. By keeping case counts down we will save lives in our community. We will get through this,” Suke said.

Local businesses began reacting to the news and evaluating what it means for them. The Haliburton County Development Corporation said it would continue to help businesses with relief programs and remains open as an essential service under a locked door policy.

“Today’s news was not easy to take. However, we will get through this. Together,” the corporation said.

Gemmill said stopping travel and gatherings is critical to preventing the spread. He said although diminished hospital capacity is more of an issue in larger centres, the district is not immune.

“We may not be in that position, but it is fully in the realm of possibility that if things go out of control, we could be.”

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