The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ontario’s lockdown guidelines are a confusing mess

Ontario Premier Doug Ford in Toronto on Jan. 4. (Frank Gunn/AP)
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On Thursday at 12:01 a.m., Ontario’s stay-at-home order came into effect across the province. Well before that, Ontarians were taking to social media to wonder aloud in a frustrated chorus: What, precisely, do the rules mean? Doing his best folksy and avuncular bit, Premier Doug Ford repeated that the message was clear: Stay home. Except when you feel that it is essential not to, naturally.

Ford delivered a bungled message that amounted to ordering that one should not leave their home — except to do things, buy stuff and see people. There are 29 exceptions to the order. Even police services — who are, rather unwisely, tasked with enforcing the arbitrary boundaries of the order — were at a loss. As the Toronto Star reported, police spokesperson Joe Couto admitted: “There’s way more questions than we have answers at this time.” Later, the province clarified that police cannot stop people at random to check compliance with the order. But the police retain broad discretion in enforcing the rules.

The stay-at-home order is an absolute shambles. Giving the police arbitrary, if somewhat constrained, power to enforce what counts as essential is certain to lead to abuses, especially against racialized individuals and those working nights. In Quebec, where a curfew was initiated earlier in January, problems have popped up, including evening shift workers being fined despite having permission to be out and a questionable search of a woman’s lunch bag. In Ontario, especially in its capital, Toronto, carding — arbitrary identity checks by police — is already a travesty and violation of civil rights. Now the practice has a potential pandemic companion.

The new rules, which will be in effect until Feb. 11, also do nothing to tackle the structural problems that contribute to the spread of covid-19. Paid sick leave is not included in the Thursday order. A temporary eviction ban has been included, but it comes with exceptions and evictions hearings will continue. Once more, people are being asked to bear personal burdens and responsibilities for which many of them are unequipped, in many cases for reasons beyond their control.

Ford and his government have a history of tough talk and promises when it comes to managing the pandemic, but the jibber jabber remains in service of established commercial interests and the status quo, and thus leads nowhere. Under the current order, nonessential businesses remain open, albeit with restricted hours between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. The government will do anything it takes to save lives, except for anything that runs contrary to its narrow conception of what we owe one another and how we ought to live and work.

The government has tried to clarify the stay-at-home order. Its effort has been akin to trying to get a red wine stain out of your white carpet by scrubbing it with bourbon. Upon releasing a frequently asked questions document, the government admitted they could not define the what counts as essential — and is thus exempt — from the rules. It would be up to individuals to use their judgment — and individual employers, which is a system ripe for abuse. A Twitter thread from a professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa tracks reports of questionable “exceptions.” The incidents included in it are not encouraging.

On the face of it, it seems wise to leave room for discretion in these matters. Few, as a rule, want the government to make such determinations about what counts as essential; yet without clear boundaries and resources to support compliance, Ontarians are left navigating their day-to-day lives in the dark, hoping not to run into the wrong cop or neighbor. Moreover, it takes a stunning lack of self-awareness and common sense for a government to pursue a plan in the midst of chaos without preparing those subject to it to abide by its strictures. It takes something rather more sinister to premise that plan on the logic that Ontarians have shown poor judgment to date that has led us to dire straits, and thus the solution is to encourage us to follow our best judgment as we attempt to decode what is good, right and just. Personal responsibility abounds, just not for Ford and his government.

Ten months into a pandemic that has defined the contours of our lives, each of us is frustrated, angry and exhausted. But not every one of us can do something about the rules that shape those contours. Members of the government can. At the very least, they owe us clarity and precision when they make decisions about how we are to live together.

Immediately beyond that, they also owe us the resources that will permit us to live safe and decent lives during this crisis. On each of those obligations, the Ford government has failed residents of Ontario, and no one should ever forget that.

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