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COVID-19: Ottawa’s Dr. Etches clarifies support for ‘low-risk’ curbside pickup

Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches is clarifying her support for keeping retailers open for curbside pickup during the third wave of COVID-19 in the capital on Thursday after stirring up some confusion on the topic earlier in the week.

The Ottawa Board of Health’s decision to write to the province requesting a pared-down list of businesses deemed essential and allowed to operate amid record-high COVID-19 cases in Ontario had some in the city wondering whether retailers would be allowed to remain open for curbside pickup and delivery.

Asked during a press conference on Wednesday whether she would like to see the city return to a situation similar to the start of the pandemic where most non-essential businesses couldn’t even do curbside pickup, Etches appeared to indicate that she was in favour of a full closure of such businesses.

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“Yes, we are looking at, we need to limit the number of places that are open that provide a place for COVID to be transmitted,” said Ottawa’s top doc, adding that businesses providing food and health services should be the primary ones operating.

Some, including representatives from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, were upset by the suggestion that curbside pickup, a lifeline for many retailers in the pandemic, could be taken away.

Mayor Jim Watson quickly weighed in over Twitter the following morning to say that the city will not ban curbside pickup.

Etches sent a memo to members of city council on Thursday afternoon outlining her current stance on keeping businesses open.

She wrote that retail and restaurant curbside pickup is considered a “low-risk activity supported by Ottawa Public Health.”

“The concern is not with transmission to clients via retail and restaurant curbside pickup which is a low-risk practice. The concern is transmission between co-workers and to protect workers who are at greater risk from large outbreaks,” she wrote.

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Etches also indicated in her memo that the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table also recommends reducing the number of non-essential businesses allowed to open to reduce transmission.

The local board of health has not yet received a response to its request earlier this week to pare down the list of essential businesses, but Etches said she expects a response in the coming days.

If Ontario does not adopt its recommendations, which include allowing enforcement officers to enter, investigate and ultimately close businesses not complying with public health orders, OPH is preparing a Section 22 order that would give local bylaw officers that power.

While Ottawa has seen numerous workplace outbreaks in recent weeks, Etches has said she will not issue an order to close down businesses with five or more COVID-19 cases — a tact taken in Toronto and Peel Region — saying Wednesday that the number of sites with outbreaks of that magnitude locally is “limited.”

There are currently 17 ongoing outbreaks affecting workplaces in Ottawa, though OPH does not disclose how many active cases are associated with each outbreak on its COVID-19 dashboard.

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