The Ontario government says it is reintroducing capacity limits for some indoor venues amid concerns around the Omicron variant.
The government said Wednesday capacity limits of 50 per cent will be applied to indoor areas of venues with a normal capacity of 1,000 or more.
The new rules will take effect on Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
“This measure is being taken to reduce opportunities for close contact in high-risk indoor settings with large crowds and when masks are not always worn,” a news release from the province said.
The government said the new rules will apply to sports and recreation facilities, entertainment facilities including concert venues, theatres and cinemas, meeting and event spaces, racing venues, studio audiences in film and TV, museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens, casinos and other gaming establishments, fairs, rural exhibitions, and festivals.
“With Omicron spreading so fast at such an alarming rate, we need to target the largest crowds indoors, where people are often unmasked,” Premier Doug Ford said at a press conference Wednesday.
“I know this will be tough, but it’s an important step in ensuring we slow the spread of Omicron as we urgently accelerate boosters.”
The news comes as the province also announced an accelerated booster dose rollout, with those 18+ becoming eligible as of Monday.
The interval between second and third doses has also been reduced from six months to three.
The government said early evidence indicates a booster shot can increase protection against severe illness and hospitalization.
“While cases were always expected to rise, the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant could put additional strain on Ontario’s hospital capacity, making it critical that all Ontarians receive their booster dose as soon as possible,” the news release said.
On Tuesday, the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said vaccines appear to be less effective in preventing the spread of the Omicron variant, but likely still provide strong protection against severe illness, especially with a booster shot.
He said the variant appears more infectious than the Delta strain.
“This means even if it is less severe, with so many people infected, there may be significant demands on the health-care system,” he said.
The variant is soon expected to become the dominant COVID-19 strain in Ontario.
Ford was also asked Wednesday whether other restrictions may soon be implemented on restaurants and gathering sizes.
“Let me be very, very clear. We aren’t going to lock down the system and try to get out of this,” he said in response.
“The best tool that we have, the very best tool is — the folks that are listening today, their friends, their family — get vaccinated.”
But later in the press conference, Ford was asked about his comment that they won’t “lock down the system” and whether that meant that further restrictions were not being considered.
“Well, let me tell you, everything is on the table,” he said.
“I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you where the cases will be in two weeks or three weeks. All I’m saying, our best defense is get a booster shot. Locking ourselves down out of this isn’t the solution. What the solution is, is making sure everyone goes out and gets a booster shot in every corner of this province. And that’s our plan.”
Moore said reduced capacity at larger venues will allow for better monitoring of masking protocols and improved ventilation. Ford said it will also allow for spacing between attendees.
“You’ve got to target the largest venues and the largest venues are the sports games, large concerts,” Ford said.
“You know, people aren’t masking. As much as they implored the mask, they all aren’t masking. You’re sitting side by side for hours.
“Compared to a restaurant, that’s comparing apples and bananas as far as I’m concerned, not even apples and oranges. They have strict protocols in these restaurants and they’ve done an incredible job. They’re spacing people out and they’re being masked unless you’re you’re eating. And there’s a big difference between a restaurant and 20,000 people in an arena.”
MLSE ‘working through the logistics’ following change
In a statement issued following the announcement, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), said their ticketing team is “working through the logistics of implementing this change” and will have details for ticket holders within 24 hours.
The capacity restrictions affect events at MLSE venues including Leafs and Raptors games.
MLSE said they are supportive of the province’s decision and continue to work with government and public health officials to limit COVID spread.
“Additionally, as was being planned prior to today’s capacity announcement, MLSE’s venue operations team will implement an enhanced mask protocol within the venue beginning with Saturday’s Raptors game called “Operation Mask Up (or out)” that requires all attendees to strictly adhere to all mask-wearing protocols or risk ejection from the building,” the statement continued.