With cases setting new COVID-19 records daily and officials concerned that hospital staff will not be able to cope with the numbers, the Canadian province of Ontario announced Monday a strict lockdown beginning at 12:01 a.m. local time Saturday. 

About 14.7 million residents will be affected and all businesses except those considered essential have been ordered closed. 

The order affects the large population in southern Ontario, which includes Toronto, where the lockdown will be in effect until at least Jan. 23. The more sparsely populated north will remain in lockdown until Jan. 9.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Monday that the measure was necessary to control the spread of the virus, even though the lockdown comes on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Boxing Day has traditional retail bargain sales and is a big day for businesses and shoppers.

“This difficult action is without a doubt necessary to save lives and prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed in the coming weeks,” Ford said at a press conference. “Make no mistake, thousands of lives are at stake right now.”

As of Monday, Ontario has had more than 160,000 cases and 4,200 deaths. Cases currently stand at 19,000, another record high, and the daily totals have surged past 2,000.

During the last month, hospitals have experienced almost a 70% increase in patients with the virus.

“If we fail to take action now the consequences will be catastrophic,” Ford said. “We need to do everything in our power to protect our hospitals and our most vulnerable (residents).”

No indoor public events or social gatherings will be allowed, other than those consisting of members of the same household.

Only essential trips for work, groceries and medications should be undertaken, Ford said.

Elementary and secondary schools, currently closed for the Christmas break, will remain closed, the former until Jan. 11 and the latter until Jan. 25.

Businesses that can remain open include corner stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, gas stations and outlets that sell alcohol, as well as takeout from restaurants. However, there will be strict control of the number of people allowed in those businesses at any one time.

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