The third stage of Ontario’s post-COVID reopening will start Friday in much of the province, Premier Doug Ford announced Monday.
This reopening, like stage two, will initially leave out Toronto, the Golden Horseshoe and a few southern Ontario regions where new COVID-19 cases remain relatively high.
But with stage three, nearly everything will be allowed to resume, as long as physical distancing can be maintained. The province will likely remain there, perhaps tightening or loosening measures at times as case numbers fluctuate, until a vaccine is found, Health Minister Christine Elliott said.
"We expect the province will stay in stage three for the foreseeable future," Elliott said.
Limits on the size of gatherings have also been increased — once stage three beings, up to 50 people can gather for indoor events and up to 100 outdoors, as long as people can remain two metres apart.
Gyms and other indoor fitness facilities will be allowed to reopen in stage three, along with dine-in restaurants and live sporting events, though some close-contact sports like wrestling are still a no-go. So will movie theatres, and nearly all workplaces and businesses. (The 50-person limit for indoor spaces applies to entire facilities, not including staff and performers, which means cinemas may be limited in the number of theatres they can open.)
There are notable exceptions to the reopening: amusement and water parks, food buffets, dancing at restaurants and bars except by hired performers, overnight camps for kids, private karaoke rooms, saunas, steam rooms, bathhouses and table games at casinos are still deemed too dangerous. Those types of spaces may still be allowed to reopen if individual businesses can present an adequate and safe plan to the government, Ford said.
Some hallmarks of the last few months will remain part of our reality for some time, the stage three plan indicates. Physical distancing for those outside your social bubble, for example, is still required, and working remotely as much as possible is still encouraged.
The province’s plan also continues to urge the public to wear masks indoors and outdoors, wherever physical distancing is not possible and in accordance with local guidelines. Businesses are encouraged to take down patrons' contact information so they can be tracked down easily in case of an outbreak.
But some events that the government had said would be verboten for the foreseeable future in April will be allowed to start again within the new gathering limits: concerts, live performing arts shows and festivals, for example. Nightclubs may also reopen, but only to provide sit-down bar or restaurant services — no dancing allowed.
"We expect the province will stay in stage three for the foreseeable future," Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said. #onpoli
Friday’s reopening will apply to all regions except Toronto, Peel, York, Durham, Halton, Hamilton, Niagara, Lambton, Windsor-Essex and Haldimand-Norfolk. The government will continually reassess conditions in those 10 areas to see when they can enter stage three and give updates every Monday, Ford said.
“We need just a little more time,” Ford said.
Public health officials need about four weeks' worth of data from stage two to assess whether a region is ready for stage three, Elliott said. Since some areas entered stage two before others, those places will likely reopen sooner, she added.
“There's several other communities that moved into stage two before Toronto did, we expect that it will happen in the same way (for stage three),” Elliott said.
As long as COVID-19 is circulating and there's no vaccine, reopening will cause an increase in cases, infectious disease experts say. In the coming weeks, the province will closely track how the virus is spreading, the capacity of local health systems and how well public health officials are able to trace outbreaks, Elliott said.
The Ontario Hospital Association called for the province to be vigilant and ensure it's prepared for a second wave of cases that will likely coincide with flu season.
“Given the scale of the reopening decision announced today, it is essential that the Government of Ontario monitor the status of COVID-19 extremely closely,” the association said in a statement. “Experience in the United States demonstrates that events can escalate out of control very quickly. By its very nature, moving to stage three introduces heightened risk of renewed spread. As a result, it is essential that Ontario’s health-care system be ready for further outbreaks and a second wave of the pandemic. Nothing should be taken for granted.”
Critics say province should support businesses, parents more during reopen
In other jurisdictions, widespread reopenings have led to spikes in new cases of COVID-19. In Montreal, for example, public health officials have asked anyone who had been at a bar since the beginning of July to get tested for the virus, with five establishments reporting cases.
Ontario chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said Monday that he doesn't think the province will repeat other jurisdictions' mistakes. Whereas other places reported a jump in cases after opening patios, Ontario hasn't so far, he said.
“I think the regular patrons of these facilities would like to have them available on a regular basis and I think they would want everybody to follow the rules accordingly, so that they can enjoy those facilities as well as the business being given to the organizations,” Williams said. “It's like a team approach.”
The opposition NDP criticized the government Monday for pursuing a further reopening without giving more assistance to businesses, who must now invest in personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees and making plans to adapt to physical distancing after months of financial hardship. Party Leader Andrea Horwath called for the Progressive Conservative government to create a fund to help businesses with those costs.
“There is no question that many business owners are desperate to safely reopen,” Horwath said in a statement. “They need support.”
Ford said there are some supports for businesses out there, but the province doesn't have enough funding to assist everyone.
“The best way to help them is to let them open their doors and get their customers back,” Ford said.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner raised concerns about how the province will ramp up contact tracing, as the rollout of an app meant to help that process was delayed.
“The premier is opening the door to a second wave if he loosens public health restrictions without beefing up investments in contact tracing efforts,” Schreiner said in a statement. “People want to move to stage three, but if we are going to do it safely, the premier must show leadership on how we will keep people safe.”
Schreiner also said the government needs to do more to support parents.
During Monday's announcement, Ford said the government is aiming to have kids back in school full time by September. (The government has said it is working on plans for several scenarios.)
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he has “confidence” that more daycare centres will open up as parents need to head back to work, and that the government is continuing to work on giving “certainty” to schools for the fall.
“Summer camps are coming along and summer schools in some boards, so there are plans in place to ensure that we really try to cover as many parents in the province to ensure they can get back to work, as the economy recovers,” Lecce said.
Schreiner said concrete plans for schools and child care should have been a higher priority than opening bars.
“The premier is forgetting that workplaces are staffed by working parents who cannot leave their children unattended,” he said.