TORONTO — Residents of one of Ontario's COVID-19 hot spots rushed out into a snowstorm to tackle Christmas shopping, stock up on supplies or squeeze in last-minute haircuts on Sunday as they prepared to hunker down for a lockdown meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Their last-minute preparations came a day before Toronto and Peel Region were set to move into the grey classification of the province's pandemic response framework, a move announced by Premier Doug Ford on Friday.
The shift to "lockdown" means all but essential retailers will be forced to limit their services or close their doors entirely due to case numbers that have stayed well over 1,000 a day for several weeks.
But those numbers didn't scare off shoppers at Toronto's Eaton Centre.
"I guess we're concerned, but we've got our masks. I just hope the numbers go down," said Robert Onderdonk. "We missed the tradition. And we weren't the only ones who had the idea to come."
He said he believes it's the right call to tighten restrictions, even though it will be a struggle for businesses that make most of their money around Christmas.
Entering the grey classification of the colour-coded system means that for at least the next 28 days, personal care services will be suspended, restaurants can offer only pickup or delivery service and non-essential retailers will close for in-person shopping.
"There are a few places, like H&M, that take a long time to deliver, " said shopper Aishni Arora. "So I'm planning to shop here, rather than order online."
Arora said that she was eager to get in and out quickly from the crowds at the Eaton Centre on Sunday afternoon, citing the rising COVID-19 case counts. But three people were ahead of her in line at SoftMoc, as people waited outside shoe and lingerie stores to try on items that are harder to size online.
Arora said that despite her last-minute trek to the mall, she doubts she'll be able to find all the gifts she needs before the shops close their doors.
Even so, she's understanding of the government's decision.
Ontario reported 1,534 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, along with 14 new deaths associated with the virus. The province also said 484 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, with 89 on ventilators.
Prominent shopping malls Yorkdale, Square One and Scarborough Town Centre extended hours over the weekend to safely manage "an anticipated increase in visitors," hoping to spread out shoppers outside the peak hours of 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The move prompted a swift social media backlash, with one Twitter user writing, "If you're having trouble finding COVID, the Yorkdale mall is having a special this weekend!"
A steady stream of cars crept through the packed parking lot at that north Toronto shopping centre, while bag-toting customers stopped to take photos of the throngs.
"It is unfortunate to see everyone kind of rush to the mall today. It's probably not the best thing," said Mason James, back at the Eaton Centre.
James said the lockdown may be necessary to send the message that COVID-19 is serious. Outside, people huddled in the snow to eat food court meals due to restrictions on indoor dining.
"The mall is all decked out and the stores are all ready for Christmas," he said. "But now they will be shut down for 28 days."
While Toronto and Peel face the strictest measures, other areas of the province are also seeing rules tighten.
The government said last week that Durham Region and Waterloo will join York Region in the red classification on Monday. The rules limit restaurants, gyms and food courts to 10 indoor patrons with social distancing, with even tighter restrictions on private gatherings.
Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said that local police have agreed to up municipal bylaw enforcement in areas where there is crowding, such as “malls, big box retailers, grocery stores and banquet halls.”
“I urge residents of Toronto and Peel to remain in their municipalities and not travel to York Region for the purposes of meeting family and friends, running errands or holiday shopping,” Scarpitti said in a statement.
The areas around Huron, Perth, Simcoe, Muskoka, and Windsor-Essex will move to the orange classification on Monday, which caps gatherings at staffed businesses to 50 people indoors, or four per table at restaurants.
Several public health units are also moving to the yellow classification: Chatham-Kent, Grey Bruce, Kingston, Peterborough and Thunder Bay. The yellow classification limits indoor gatherings to 50 people at staffed businesses, six per restaurant table and 10 people in fitness classes.
With nearly 46,400 tests completed, Sunday's figures bring the total of COVID-19 cases in Ontario to 103,912, with 3,486 deaths, and 87,508 cases resolved. The latest COVID-19 numbers came on the heels a one-day peak on Saturday, when 1,588 new instances of the virus were reported.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2020.
Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press