Canada is slowly reopening, but when will live sports return?
In March 2020 all Canadian sports stopped in its tracks due to Covid-19. This was the case in almost every other country as well, since the virus was deadly and the transmission of the disease was unknown. Pretty much all indoor activities, including movies and casinos, shut down as well. The first wave started to ebb in Canada fairly quickly, but kept spreading throughout the United States. Canada was hit particularly hard in long term care homes, while in the U.S. the virus spread in all populations. Nevertheless, around the summer of 2020 most U.S. states started reopening some activities as cases dropped, although masks and social distancing were still required. Florida and Texas pretty much lifted all restrictions in September despite rising cases, while more Democratic states, like New York and California, still limited gatherings. This created a great deal of outrage among many Californians, who called for Governor Newsome's recall suggesting he badly mishandled the pandemic.
In Canada, the reopening decisions were left to the provinces and all acted very cautiously. While the last 18 months saw a varied set of lockdowns and restrictions in most provinces, all provinces except Ontario, (Canada’s largest province with almost 14 million people), had a plan. Ontario seemed to change with the wind.
At first the province issued a color-coded plan in the fall of 2020 for reopening, with green indicating full reopening, yellow indicating restricted reopening, red indicating very limited reopening and grey indicating a lockdown. The colors were generally regionally based and there was no rhyme nor reason to how the province reopened anything. Toronto and Peel Region, which had high cases were almost always red or grey, while surrounding areas were a yo-yo of colors. Cases started creeping up in the province into the thousands (although the amount was miniscule compared to most U.S. states), and health officials said they were worried about the hospitals becoming overwhelmed. So, the province tried to create a uniform rule for every city in the province and scrapped the color code and created similar rules for all regions. They went through a mishmash of openings and closings leading to frustration among most business owners, including sports teams, casino companies and various other activities, who said they couldn't operate not knowing what was happening from day to day. For example, hair salons were only allowed to open for about two weeks after being closed for nearly 8 months, only to be shut down again, even though there was no indication that salons were a source of spread. And even outdoor activities like kids' sports tournaments and golf courses remained closed for most of 2020. The winter saw the province locked down from February 2021 onwards, so ski hills and other winter sports never opened.
In the meantime, U.S. states started getting back to normal, while Canada remained in lockdown. Much of the blame for the failure to reopen was placed on Justin Trudeau and the federal government who opposition parties said were guilty of not securing vaccines in a timely manner. Much of this was due to Donald Trump’s decree that no vaccines could be shipped outside the country until all Americans were vaccinated, which led to a situation where Canada's vaccines had to be sourced from companies in the EU. When Joe Biden took power, he eventually eased that decree and allowed some Moderna vaccines to go to Canada and he gifted Canada with 1.5 million AstraZeneca vaccines that were never approved in the U.S. But for the most part the vaccines were slow to come in.
Consequently, by March of 2021 less than 3% of the Canadian population was vaccinated and those who were vaccinated were almost exclusively long-term care residents and front line health care workers. Eventually Canada started receiving more vaccines as Pfizer and Moderna upped their shipments after Pfizer was allowed to ship vaccines to Canada from Kalamazoo and almost all provinces decided on a first dose strategy meaning that 2nd doses of mRNA and AstraZeneca vaccines were put off for up to four months instead of the manufacturers’ recommended three weeks for Pfizer and four weeks for Moderna. The strategy worked as the number of one dose recipients skyrocketed, although many say it was still wrong to go against the vaccine makers’ recommendations. Reports suggested that one dose was still almost 70%-90% effective in preventing severe illness if one catches Covid, yet Ontario still stayed mostly locked down. Soon vaccines started rolling in by the thousands and most Canadians became eligible for their 2nd dose. Reports of rare blood clots with AstraZeneca led to Ontario stopping the administration of that vaccine and Health Canada encouraged those who got AstraZeneca as a first dose to get an mRNA vaccine as their 2nd dose, since they said it had a higher efficacy.
While almost every other province reopened indoor dining, hair salons, malls, schools and retail stores with Covid restrictions, Ontario decided to stay the course and kept everything closed. This frustrated many Ontarians, since they got their vaccines as the province begged them to but were not rewarded for those efforts. As of today, Canada has vaccinated over 70% of the eligible population with at least one dose and close to 40% are fully vaccinated. And in Ontario 78% of eligible residents 12 and over have had at least one dose and over 45% are fully vaccinated. The expectation is, by the end of July, 75% of the eligible Canadian population will be vaccinated. Consequently, many provinces including Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia have lifted all restrictions and announced they are open for business and almost every other province except Ontario has made plans to do the same.
On July 2nd, Ontario finally announced a phased reopening, allowing some outdoor activities to reopen in Phase 2, as well as hair salons, patio dining and very limited retail shopping. But all indoor dining, gyms, movies and casinos remain closed until at least July 21st. What seems to be really frustrating many Ontarians is that the province’s Premiere Doug Ford is a staunch conservative, but all the actions he has imposed go completely against the philosophy of his government. Small businesses have been struggling and even closing due to the rules, which many are now calling unnecessary with the number of vaccines in people’s arms. The likely reason for that is that Ford was blamed for Ontario’s 3rd wave after not closing things down fast enough, so he is simply gun shy. He also had several "sky is falling" health officials guiding him.
No Live Sports
On the federal level, the Canada-U.S. border closed on March 18, 2020 and never reopened. Consequently no U.S. teams could enter Canada, which led to the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs taking place in September in Toronto and Edmonton without fans with all U.S. teams being required to isolate for 14 days before participating. But all other Canadian teams have had to play their games in the United States. The Raptors played their playoff games in the Florida bubble in 2020 and in the 2020-2021 season they were the "home team" in Tampa Bay. The Toronto Blue Jays played all their home games in Buffalo in the fall of 2020 and this year they played their home games in Dunedin, Florida and Buffalo. All the Canadian MLS soccer teams played in Florida this year also.
The CFL never played any games, since sports gatherings are disallowed throughout Canada, but there is hope they can play with some fans in attendance beginning next month. The Indy Car race, F1 race, NASCAR truck race and any events with gatherings or international travel were cancelled. Canadian teams have effectively begged the Canadian government to reopen the borders so the teams could play real home games, but the requests have fallen on deaf ears.
The frustration is particularly high with the Toronto Blue Jays, since they have said that they are being forced to play in minor league parks and the fans in the parks are almost exclusively cheering for the visiting team putting them at a big disadvantage. Dunedin was particularly bad, as it is estimated at all games less than 20% of fans were rooting for the Jays. There is an indication that the federal government may allow the Jays to play at home at the end of July, although others say Trudeau's government is still wavering due to concern about the Covid Delta Variant. This is despite, by that date, three-quarters of the Canadian population will be fully vaccinated, which is far outpacing every other country, including the United States. And, almost all players on every U.S. and Canadian team are fully vaccinated. While the blame is being placed on both Trudeau and Biden, almost everyone close to the situation says that Joe Biden asked Trudeau to reopen the borders, but Trudeau has refused. Some claim it’s due to the variants while other say it’s a political move with a Canadian election nearing since Trudeau’s advisors think keeping the borders closed is winning him votes, particularly with his base. Some even say that Trudeau has hinted he wants to see 75% of Americans fully vaccinated before he’ll agree to open the borders, although everyone agrees that target will likely never happen.
Aside from the sports teams, casino operators, horseracing tracks and most tourist attractions are screaming that these lockdowns are destroying them and there is absolutely no justifiable reason for this to continue. Today there was less than 500 positive cases in Canada as well as 9 deaths (almost all being unvaccinated individuals or those who have been in hospital for a long time), and in Ontario there was only 150 positive cases with a 1% positivity rate and only 1 death, far below any measure that would justify keeping things closed. And frustration is growing in border towns as well from politicians and businesses who say that the lack of Canadian travel is harming their economy. Rep. Brian Higgins who represents Western New York tweeted the following on June 30th:
We have made incredible progress protecting the public with vaccines. So, the @NYTimes asks a good question: "Why can't U.S. Residents Travel to Canada?" But there is no good answer. #LetusReunite.
Higgins has even written to Joe Biden and asked the President to take unilateral action and open the U.S. border to Canadians, if Trudeau is going to remain stubborn and keep the border closed.
And many Canadians and U.S. citizens are asking the same question. One person I spoke to from Toronto has expressed real frustration with the continued lockdowns, border closures and lack of sports.
"This is bullsh*t. I was hesitant to get the vaccine, but I agreed to do so because I was promised that this would normalize life. But it hasn’t. I still can’t go to the gym, I still must wear a mask in all stores, I still can’t see my family in Rochester, and I still can’t go to a Jays game. Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau have lost my vote and I voted for each of them last time. We were promised that we would be free again once we reached 70% first dose and 25% full vaccination. We are way past that target, but while Canadians are living up to their end of the bargain, these useless governments are reneging on their promises. They can cite variants of concern but those will always be there. What’s important is that no one that got two doses is getting seriously ill or dying. The vaccines are doing their job, but Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau aren’t. I don’t know when the hell Canada adopted the Chinese dictatorial style of leadership or when Ford became a socialist, but I’m sick of this. Open things back up! It’s too bad we can’t recall politicians in Canada."
What is most confusing is that Canadians can fly to a U.S. destination and don’t have to quarantine upon returning to Canada, if they can prove they were fully vaccinated. But driving across the border is disallowed. And even more confusing, almost all other countries have opened the doors to the United States, even those who have been very adversarial to Uncle Sam, yet Canada, who Biden deemed as the United State’s closest friend and largest trading partner, remains closed.
Canadians have been very understanding with the restrictions during the pandemic when cases were out of control and really never questioned the government decisions believing they were looking out for their health and safety. Whether it was closing indoor dining, disallowing any gatherings outside of immediate family even on holidays, and even cancelling elective surgeries to keep ICUs free, Canadians agreed it was necessary. But now people in Canada are becoming frustrated, particularly in Ontario as they see everyone else getting their lives back except them. The border closure is set to expire on July 21st, but right now there is no indication that Trudeau or Biden will open then or any time in 2021.
It's unfortunate to Canadian sports fans, sports teams, gamblers and even those with relatives on the other side of the border who are being held hostage and shut down for reasons few can understand anymore. Let's hope the rumblings are wrong and both the Canadian and American governments come to their senses and allow free travel and activities to resume.