The Ontario government says it is pausing the further lifting of capacity limits in “remaining higher-risk settings” as COVID-19 cases rise in the province.
In a news release issued Wednesday afternoon, the government said the decision was made “out of an abundance of caution” as officials continue to monitor health trends.
“An increase in cases was always expected as more people move indoors due to the colder weather and as the province eased measures,” the statement said.
“However, out of an abundance of caution, existing capacity limits and physical distancing requirements for higher-risk settings where proof of vaccination is required will remain in place to ensure the province has the required time to better understand any potential impact on hospitalizations and ICU admissions.”
On Monday, capacity limits were set to be lifted in food and drink establishments with dance facilities (like nightclubs), wedding receptions in event spaces where there is dancing, strip clubs, sex clubs, and bathhouses.
The government said the decision to hold off on further reopening was made in consultation with chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore.
Moore will “continue to monitor the data for the next 28 days to determine when it is safe to lift capacity limits in these settings,” the statement said.
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In a press conference shortly after the announcement, Moore said the 28-day review period begins on the day the restrictions were set to be lifted — Monday.
“We have taken a cautious approach to reopening the province and the plan was always designed to be guided by the ongoing assessment and monitoring of key public health and health-care indicators to ensure that public health and workplace safety measures are lifted safely,” Moore said.
“Ontario has continued to make progress as a result of its safe and cautious approach to reopening. We continue to have one of the lowest weekly case rates in the country and our hospital and intensive care capacity is currently stable. But to ensure that we maintain our progress, it is necessary to make this deliberate pause. We must remain vigilant.”
Moore said that overall the province remains in a good position and he doesn’t foresee restrictions being reimposed on a provincial level, though they may be regionally.
He said schools remain “very safe” across the province.
Moore added his biggest concern that could hamper Ontario’s progress in battling COVID-19 is the emergence of a new variant that evades vaccine protection, something he stressed has not yet appeared around the world.
Regarding the current rise in cases, Moore said the virus is spreading in areas of the province with lower vaccination rates or low natural immunity.
“It will continue to do so until we have a very high level vaccination and/or quite frankly until we have more people sadly infected and put at risk by this virus,” he said.
“So our goal from a public health perspective has always been to have the highest level of vaccination that we can and now to encourage the third dose protection as we go into winter to maximize that long-term protection, especially for those that are most vulnerable to this virus.”
Moore added that the virus is spreading mostly in those aged 20 to 39 in social settings where masks aren’t worn.
When asked whether the province could put other reopening plans on hold, like the plan to begin lifting proof of vaccination requirements in some settings in January, Moore again said all decisions will be data-driven.
“The plan will continue to be on the second week of January to reassess the data so that will reflect the holiday season, the return to school, college, and universities and at that time make any further determination of further removal of public health measures,” he said.
News of the pause in reopening comes shortly after Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government wasn’t planning on changing course on its reopening plan despite a recent rise in COVID-19 infections.
Ontario reported 454 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a daily count higher than the same weekday of the previous two weeks.
The seven-day average has now reached 503, which is up from the week prior when it was 379.
There are more than 11.1 million people fully immunized with two doses in Ontario, which is 85.1 per cent of the eligible (12 and older) population. First dose coverage stands at 88.5 per cent.
— With files from Jessica Patton and Gabby Rodrigues