The Ontario government is moving the province into Step 3 of the COVID-19 reopening plan nearly a week earlier than previously expected.
Officials confirmed on Friday that the province will move into Step 3 on July 16 at 12:01 a.m. Ontario was originally slated to move into the next step on July 21.
“I didn’t see any reason to hold us back given that so many Ontarians have come forward. Over 200,000 (people a day) are coming forward to get immunized,” Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s new chief medical officer of health, told reporters Friday afternoon.
Step 3 of the reopening plan focuses on expanding indoor settings and further bolsters outdoor settings. Here are the major changes that will come into effect when the province enters Step 3:
- Up to 25 people can attend indoor gatherings and public events
- Expanded capacity for religious services, rites, ceremonies
- Indoor dining now allowed with no capacity limits except for keeping two metres apart from other tables
- Sports and recreational fitness facilities can operate at maximum 50 per cent capacity, 50 per cent of spectator capacity allowed up to 1,000 people
- Meeting and event spaces can now operate with up to 50 per cent capacity or up to 1,000 people (whichever is less)
- Personal care services that require masks to be removed, capacity restricted to two metres of physical distances
- Casinos, museums, aquariums, landmarks, galleries, fairs, amusement parks capped at 50 per cent indoor capacity
- Concert venues, cinemas, theatres can now operate with a cap of up to 50 per cent capacity indoors or a maximum of 1,000 people (whichever is less)
- Real estate open houses capacity expanded to people who can stay two metres apart
- Nightclubs, strip clubs can now operate with up to 25 per cent capacity or a maximum of 250 people (whichever is less)
- Gatherings and organized public events up to 100 people allowed with limited exceptions
- Spectators for outdoor sports and recreational activities are capped at 75 per cent of approved capacity or 15,000 people (whichever is less)
- Casinos, museums, aquariums, landmarks, galleries, fairs, amusement parks capped at 75 per cent outdoor capacity or a maximum of 5,000 people (whichever is less) for unseated events, up to 75 per cent of capacity of 15,000 people (whichever is less) for events with mixed seating
Provincial officials said masks and face coverings will remain in place in indoor public settings throughout Step 3 as will physical distancing requirements. Masks will be required in some outdoor settings along with other public health measures. Moore said he will be encouraging people to wear masks for the coming months in an effort to reduce the transmission of the virus.
Ontario was set to stay in Step 3 for at least 21 days and until 80 per cent of those eligible, aged 12 and older, have at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 75 per cent are fully immunized with both doses.
After meeting those thresholds, the provincial government will reportedly look at removing the majority of public health and workplace safety measures. These measures include lifting capacity limits for indoor and outdoor settings and lifting social gatherings.
Officials noted only a small number of measures will remain in place such as passive screening such as signage and businesses needing a safety plan.
However, the shift to an earlier date appeared to differ from what Moore previously indicated in terms of his preference for moving into Step 3.
Under the three-step plan released on May 20, a minimum period of three weeks will be in place before Step 3 could come into effect. Based on the previously published criteria, the earliest Ontario was set to enter Step 3 would have been July 21.
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During his first news conference, Moore said he expected the province would remain in Step 2 for at least three weeks due to concerns about COVID-19 variants.
“With Delta being present, we obviously have to watch what is going on around the world where Australia and multiple cities have had to lockdown, Israel is back with masking in public spaces, Europe might be looking at further public health measures,” he said, noting the two-to-three-week intervals are important.
“We’re going to be watching internationally, nationally, provincially, locally — being data-driven and advise government based on data.”
In terms of the vaccination guidelines set out for Step 3 (between 70 and 80 per cent of eligible adults receiving their first vaccine dose and 25 per cent receiving their second dose), those thresholds have since been met.
On Friday, officials reported first dose vaccine coverage of eligible adults stood at 78.9 per cent, and 52.7 per cent of adults received both doses.
Moore was pressed about possibly accelerating the move into Step 3. However, he reiterated past government messaging and said reduced hospitalizations, ICUs as well as the level of virus spread and its associated reproduction rate are factors in the decision to leave Step 2 behind (the exact thresholds for each of those data metrics weren’t released).
“All of those metrics, together with Ontarians coming forward with having a high rate of immunization, gives me hope that we can open safely,” Moore said.
“We will continue to monitor all the data as we move into Step 3.”
Premier Doug Ford made comments on Friday at an unrelated event in Brampton celebrating the earlier move to the next step due to high rates of immunization.
“I won’t stop until we get every business open and back on their feet,” Ford said.
“And the only way we’re gonna do that is to get vaccinated. We’ll hit our target.”
Ford was questioned about the remaining 20 per cent who are unvaccinated and how that will impact reopening timelines and staying open. He said he can’t force Ontarians to get the shot as “that’s their constitutional right. I can’t force anyone to get it. I encourage them.”
“I would love to see 100 per cent but 80 per cent of a population of 15 million, that’s pretty good. But I’m never happy until we hit 100 per cent,” Ford said.
Minutes after the Ontario government made the announcement, the president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business welcomed the changes.
“Finally, finally, finally small businesses have some light at the end of the tunnel. The world’s longest lock down will come to an end next week,” Dan Kelly told Global News Radio 640 Toronto.
“It is so, so long overdue and really is some solid good news for small business owners across Ontario.
However, despite the changes, Kelly said the province is still behind other provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia for reopening, highlighting indoor capacity limits for instance.
“We’re still way, way behind. Most indoor activities will come along with a 50 per cent capacity restriction,” he said.
“For many, that will mean they are just not profitable any time soon. But still, we’ve got to welcome today’s news.”
Kelly said he is looking for additional transitional support payments from the Ontario government to help businesses that have incurred debt as a result of COVID-19-related measures.
Toronto Mayor John Tory issued a statement Friday afternoon praising the provincial decision.
“I support this decision, based as it is on the advice of health officials, and believe it is the right thing to do as we continue to see lower case counts and higher vaccine rates. It makes continued progress on vaccinations more important than ever,” he wrote, adding it giving business owners clear guidance for operating.
“As we review the regulations and the impacts of these changes on City services, we will be working to implement the new regulations as quickly as possible.”