Today’s coronavirus news: Canada reinstates PCR tests for short trips abroad, lifts travel ban for 10 African countries; Ontario reports 3,124 new cases

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

11:34 a.m. Canada is lifting its travel ban for 10 African countries starting Dec. 18 at 11:59 p.m. Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister of health, made the announcement on Friday during a COVID briefing, acknowledging the “controversy” created by the bans, but says the measures have “served its purpose” and are no longer necessary. The federal government is also bringing back PCR testing for all travellers leaving the country for less than 72 hours starting Dec. 21. Canada continues to urge people to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada due to the risk of the Omicron variant.

10:06 Ontario reporting 3,124 cases with 358 hospitalized and 157 in the ICU on Friday.

The seven-day average is up 162 to 1,679 cases per day. Positivity at 8.2 per cent and rising. The province administered 156,525 vaccines.

9:57 a.m. Prince Edward Island’s top medical officer says the province is seeing transmission of the novel coronavirus quickly and with minimal contact between people.

Health officials reported 10 new cases of COVID-19 late Thursday.

Officials say four of the new cases are linked to travel outside the Island, while the other six are under investigation.

There are currently 49 active cases of the disease in P.E.I.

Chief public health officer Dr. Heather Morrison is urging residents to follow public health rules, including physical distancing and wearing three-layer masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors when distancing can’t be maintained.

The new infections bring the province’s total case count to 444 since the pandemic began.

9:49 a.m. The mugshot-style photos are posted on online message boards in black and white and look a little like old-fashioned “wanted” posters.

“The Jews own COVID just like all of Hollywood,” the accompanying text says. “Wake up people.”

The post is one of many that white supremacists and far-right extremists are using to expand their reach and recruit followers on the social media platform Telegram, according to the findings of researchers who sifted through nearly half a million comments on pages — called channels on Telegram — that they categorized as far-right from January 2020 to June 2021.

The tactic has been successful: Nine of the 10 most viewed posts in the sample examined by the researchers contained misleading claims about the safety of vaccines or the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing them. One Telegram channel saw its total subscribers jump tenfold after it leaned into COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

“COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for radicalization,” said the study’s author, Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “It allows conspiracy theorists or extremists to create simple narratives, framing it as us versus them, good versus evil.”

Read the full story here on the Star.

9:13 a.m. Denmark’s prime minister said Friday that his government is moving to close theaters, cinemas, concert halls, amusement parks, museums and art galleries as part of new restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen Frederiksen said the proposed measures also would require stores smaller than 2,000 square meters (21,528 square feet) and restaurants to limit their number of customers. Restaurants would have to serve their last meals and alcoholic beverages at 10 p.m. and close at 11 p.m.

The Danish government is advising residents to limit social contacts over the Christmas holidays.

“We are not talking about shutting down the whole country as we did last year,” Frederiksen said. “Our goal is still to keep as large sections of society open as possible. We need to curb activity. We all need to limit our social contacts.”

The shutdown order requires parliamentary approval. Lawmakers on the 21-member Epidemic Committee were scheduled to meet Friday afternoon.

Denmark currently requires face masks on public transportation and in shops. The government wants to extend the mask mandate to include educational institutions and places of worship.

Like many other European countries, Denmark is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, with health authorities saying the number of infections and hospitalizations has risen faster than expected.

The country reported 9,999 new cases on Thursday, and the number was above 11,000 on Friday, the prime minister said.

Last year, Denmark was one of the first European countries to close schools because of the pandemic, and the government sent home all public employees without critical functions. The government also barred gatherings of more than 100 people.

In Finland, the Institute for Health and Welfare on Friday reintroduced a recommendation for people to use face masks in public spaces, including on public transportation. It came into force Friday and applies to everyone 12 and older.

8:10 a.m. Toronto has announced full reactivation of its city-wide Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) in response to Omicron variant of concern, according to a statement released on Friday.

EOC requires the city to assign representatives in every devision, agency and corporation, who will make timely decisions on behalf of their respective operational areas. This is done to ensure essential services continue without any interruption for both residents and business.

EOC will continue to convene remotely.

6:45 a.m. It’s déjà vu all over again.

For a travel industry that was just starting to recover from the ravages of COVID-19, the federal government’s recommendation this week that Canadians should avoid non-essential international travel was devastating. And all too familiar.

“I can’t believe that 21 months into this pandemic, we’re back in this position again,” said a frustrated Richard Vanderlubbe, owner of travel agency, and a director of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies.

Concerned customers have already been swamping the phone lines, wondering if it’s still safe to travel amidst the spread of COVID’s Omicron variant, Vanderlubbe said. Many are cancelling.

Read more from the Star’s Josh Rubin.

6:10 a.m. Lines again stretch around blocks at some COVID-19 testing sites. Refrigerated mobile morgues are on order, and parts of Europe are re-tightening borders amid a winter spike in coronavirus infections.

This year’s holiday season was supposed to be a do-over for last year’s subdued celebrations. Instead it’s turning into a redux of restrictions, cancellations and rising angst over the never-ending pandemic.

“This year, more than ever, everyone needed a holiday,” said John McNulty, owner of Thief, a Brooklyn bar that had to close for a day earlier this week because of an infected employee.

As Christmas and New Year’s approach, a pall lingers over the season. Infections are soaring around the world, and the quickly spreading Omicron variant has triggered new restrictions on travel and public gatherings reminiscent of the dark days of 2020.

5:45 a.m. The push for Canadians to get their vaccine booster shots is ramping up as the COVID-19 Omicron variant spreads across the country, triggering more pandemic restrictions in some provinces.

Starting Monday in Quebec, all bars, restaurants, retail stores and places of worship will be limited to 50 per cent capacity.

Work parties will be banned, as will dancing and karaoke inside bars, clubs and restaurants.

Premier François Legault said yesterday that vaccinations aren’t enough to stop the transmission of Omicron as he also reversed a decision to ease indoor gathering limits — keeping the maximum at 10 people over the holidays.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has reintroduced a 50 per cent crowd limit in venues with a capacity of more than 1,000.

The daily tally of new COVID cases in both Ontario and Quebec has soared well above 2,000, and the latest modelling in the two provinces indicates those numbers are poised to balloon further to historic levels unless urgent action is taken to slow Omicron’s spread.

5:30 a.m. “Serious restrictions” will help keep Ontario schools open despite the surge of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, says the co-chair of the province’s science table — news that comes as parents’ worries about the possibility of shutdowns continue to grow.

“I don’t think that we need to necessarily stop things full out,” Adalsteinn Brown said Thursday after releasing grim modelling numbers for the coming weeks, adding, “I believe we can do this without closing schools or shutting down businesses that have suffered during previous waves. But it will take serious restrictions that reduce contacts.”

Protocols such as masking and physical distancing, limiting gatherings and encouraging rapid testing and vaccinations, “they all help and they help make sure that we can keep schools open and keep sectors hard hit by the pandemic working,” Brown said.

Read more from the Star’s Kristin Rushowy and Isabel Teotonio.

5:15 a.m. Live theatre only recently returned to the stage after months of closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the Omicron variant is forcing the lights to go dark once again.

On Broadway, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” “Tina,” “Hamilton” and “Freestyle Love Supreme” have all cancelled performances as a result of COVID outbreaks backstage.

London’s West End has also cancelled shows due to surging COVID cases, including “Come From Away,” “Matilda the Musical,” and a revival of “Cabaret” starring Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne.

5:10 a.m. Ontario is at a crossroads in the struggle against COVID-19.

As Omicron rages and the science table urges “circuit breaker” restrictions to slow it, the Ontario government is considering a redefinition of “fully vaccinated” that would require booster shots be included on updated vaccine passports, the Star has learned.

That policy shift is part of the rapidly evolving public health crisis that has Premier Doug Ford’s government assessing how far to go in combating a new variant that is far more contagious, but hasn’t yet overwhelmed hospitals.

“Neither public health measures nor vaccinations will be enough on their own to blunt the Omicron wave,” Steini Brown, co-chair of the science table and dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said Thursday in presenting the latest modelling scenarios.

Read more from the Star’s Rob Ferguson and Robert Benzie.

5 a.m. The Senate gave quick approval Thursday to a new round of pandemic aid after Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland made a pre-Christmas plea to rubber-stamp the help and promised that benefits would flow quickly to businesses and workers in need.

Bill C-2 would provide targeted aid to businesses that are ordered closed and to workers sent home, as part of a local lockdown, as well as wage and rent subsidies to those still recovering from previous pandemic restrictions.

Freeland told senators the government created the measures in case there was another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and argued they’re needed even more now with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.

4:30 a.m. Thousands queued up across Ontario Thursday morning for a chance at free COVID-19 rapid test kits from the province, though many left empty-handed.

Eight official rapid test pop-ups in the GTA were organized by the province Thursday, announced only the day before. All but one were indoor and three were in malls.

Each location drew massive lineups and all reportedly ran out of tests early. Lenny Stone, along with hundreds of others, arrived early at Mississauga’s Square One looking for a test.

“It was crazy how many people showed up,” said Stone. “A lot of people were frustrated. They thought it was ridiculous there was only one kiosk distributing. You could feel tension in the air.”

Read more from the Star’s Ben Cohen.

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