TORONTO — Ontario will soon begin easing COVID-19 restrictions, starting by reopening businesses such as restaurants, gyms and cinemas with capacity limits and boosting the size of social gatherings – all with an eye to lifting nearly all constraints by mid-March.
Premier Doug Ford said Thursday he's announcing a phased reopening plan because public health indicators are starting to show signs of improvement.
"We can be confident that the worst is behind us," he said.
"While we can be confident in how far we've come, I want to be crystal clear: we're not out of the woods yet. The coming weeks will continue to pose real challenges, especially to our hospitals."
The rate of new hospital admissions is slowing, Ford said, and the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests has dropped significantly from early this month, when the province placed the most recent round of restrictions on businesses and moved schools online for two weeks.
Ontario reported 4,061 people in hospital with COVID-19 on Thursday and 594 people in intensive care units. That's the second day in a row that the number of hospitalizations has fallen, from a peak Tuesday of 4,183, though the ICU occupancy is still rising.
The province reported that another 75 people have died, including some deaths that occurred earlier this month.
When Ford announced the latest restrictions on Jan. 3, they included a hospital directive to pause all non-urgent surgeries and procedures. Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday it is still too soon to lift that order because the peak of admissions to ICU likely won't happen until mid-February.
"As soon as we can see that the numbers are going down both in terms of admissions to hospital and in terms of intensive care admissions, then we'll be able to get back on track with those surgeries and procedures," she said.
Restrictions on visiting long-term care homes – 56 per cent currently have a COVID-19 outbreak – will also remain until Omicron activity at large improves, said Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health.
In the meantime, restaurant dining rooms, gyms, cinemas, museums and zoos – closed since early this month – can reopen on Jan. 31 at 50 per cent capacity, and spectator areas of sporting events, concert venues and theatres can operate with no more than 500 people, with smaller venues limited to half capacity.
Social gathering sizes will be increased to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors – up from the limit of five people indoors and 10 people outdoors that was imposed Jan. 5.
There will be 21 days between each reopening step, if health trends don't become concerning.
Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious diseases physician and member of Ontario's science advisory table, said the timing of Ford's plan strikes him as a bit too early. It's based on an estimation that Ontario is hitting an Omicron peak, he said.
"The modeling is getting to be a lot more difficult because we're not testing people as much as we did," Evans said. "It will be very difficult over the following two to three weeks to follow what impact (a reopening stage) has had."
Schools have only just reopened for in-person learning this week, Evans noted.
"Around Jan. 31 was where we would be expecting to be able to measure what that impact was, and again, it's hard to do when you don't have as much testing as you possibly can."
PCR testing has been limited to high-risk groups, and doesn't include school staff or students unless they develop symptoms while at school.
Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said he is glad to see clarity from the government, but urged a longer-term plan to manage any future waves.
"We are calling for investments in testing capacity and business supports to foster a sustained reopening guided by evidence and science," he said in a statement.
One Toronto restaurant said it wouldn't be opening its dining room at half capacity, since at those levels labour costs exceed sales.
"Can't profit at that level nor do I think our customers are ready," Bistro on Avenue tweeted. "We have managed to keep our staff healthy with takeout and delivery and will continue with that for a few months."
On Feb. 21, gathering limits will ease further to 25 people indoors and 100 outdoors, capacity limits will be lifted in establishments requiring proof of vaccination, including restaurants, gyms and cinemas, while sporting events, concert venues and theatres can open at 50 per cent capacity.
Ellis Jacob, the president and CEO of Cineplex, said while he's glad to welcome guests back on Jan. 31, it is disappointing that they won't be able to consume food or drinks in theatres until Feb. 21.
"We'll keep our poppers warm so we are ready for when these unwarranted restrictions lift," he said in a statement.
On March 14, capacity limits will be lifted in all indoor public settings and indoor social gathering limits will be increased to 50 people, while there will be no limit on the size of outdoor social gatherings.
Mask rules will remain in place and proof of vaccination will still be required in businesses such as restaurants, gyms and cinemas. Ford quickly shot down a question of whether the system would be updated to require three doses instead of two.
"Not right at this point," he said.
Both NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called for vaccine certificates to require third doses, saying it would help encourage more people to get boosters.
"That is our best way to make sure that as a province we don’t slip backwards,” Del Duca said.
Evans also said three doses should now be the definition of fully vaccinated.
The science table has said two doses of COVID-19 vaccine are only 35 per cent effective against the Omicron variant three months after being administered, while a third dose bumps efficacy to 75 per cent.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press