The Ontario government said the province will begin a phased reopening on Wednesday, however, a majority of regions will remain in lockdown amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hastings Prince Edward Public Health, Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health, and Renfrew County and District Health Unit will move back to the Green-Prevent zone in the original colour-coded framework introduced by the government in November and will no longer fall under the stay-at-home-order.
The Timiskaming Health Unit, which was initially also expected to move to the green category Wednesday, will be held back for a week since a COVID-19 variant was discovered in the region over the weekend, the province said.
“We can’t return to normal, not yet,” Ford said. “But we can transition out of the provincewide shut-down.”
In the green zone, restaurants and non-essential businesses will be allowed to reopen.
The five zones under the COVID-19 response framework are Green-Prevent, Yellow-Protect, Orange-Restrict, Red-Control and Grey-Lockdown. What measures fall under each zone can be found here.
The announcement was made by Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Health Christine Elliott and the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams on Monday afternoon.
Toronto, Peel and York regions will continue under the stay-at-home order until Feb. 22, and will most likely be placed in the Grey-Lockdown zone, while the rest of the 28 public health units will begin reopening Feb. 16.
Health officials said, however, that these dates are amendable and will be “subject to review” based on numbers and health indicators.
Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that with the presence of the variants in the community, they can “anticipate” an increases in numbers, and “at this moment in time, reopening is not what I recommend for the city of Toronto.”
Ontario has been in lockdown since Boxing Day, and on Jan. 12, the province declared a state of emergency over rising cases of COVID-19.
It also instituted a stay-at-home order, which prohibited people from going out except for essential purposes, such as for exercise or to buy groceries.
Health officials said to help the economy while the province reopens, limited in-person shopping will be allowed while a region is in the Grey-Lockdown zone.
“Our number one priority will always be protecting the health and safety of all individuals, families and workers across the province,” said Premier Ford. “But we must also consider the severe impact COVID-19 is having on our businesses.
“That’s why we have been listening to business owners, and we are strengthening and adjusting the Framework to allow more businesses to safely reopen and get people back to work.”
With the discovery of the more transmissible COVID-19 variants from the U.K., Brazil and South Africa, the Ford government introduced an “emergency brake,” which will allow Williams to enact immediate action if a health unit sees a spike in transmission and/or their hospitals become overwhelmed.
The region would be moved “immediately” back to the Grey-Lockdown zone.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business which had recently asked that all businesses be allowed to open across Ontario with a 20 per cent capacity limit, called Monday’s announcement a “small, positive step.”
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But the group noted that even by Feb. 22, a number of regions are likely to remain in the strictest grey-lockdown category of the province’s restriction system.
“This is deeply unfair and will mean that in-person dining, personal services like hair and nail care, and gyms will remain in full lockdown with no end in sight,” the group said in a statement.
The state of emergency order will also end Feb. 9.
“While the declaration of emergency will be ending, the risks posed by COVID-19 and the new variants remain serious concerns,” said Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, adding everyone should still continue to stay at home, avoid social gatherings and minimize travel regardless of being under the stay-at-home order or not.
As of Monday, Ontario reported 279,472 total coronavirus cases and 6,538 total deaths.
The Ontario government said residential evictions which were paused under the stay-at-home order will be able to resume once it is lifted in a region.
Evictions were paused under the state of emergency, except for “urgent situations” such as those involving illegal activity.
Officials also said the pause included evictions that were issued but not enforced prior to the announcement by the Ford government on Jan. 14.
It marked the second time the provincial government implemented and ban on the enforcement of residential evictions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
—With files from Ryan Rocca The Canadian Press