'Safely but gradually reopening' is the best economic stimulus: Ontario finance minister
Premier Doug Ford said Ontario is in a position to do that thanks to the province's careful approach to re-opening and the resulting stability seen in case counts, hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
"We're here because we stayed cautious," he said. "We stayed disciplined and we never underestimated this virus. We look to other countries, other provinces, there could be no question that this was and is the right approach."
The province said it will be assessing key public health and health-system indicators -- including the identification of new COVID-19 variants and increases in hospitalizations -- in the coming months to ensure restrictions can be lifted safely.
"I'm going to be super cautious," Ford said. "If we do not see numbers in a stable place we just aren't going to do it."
But Ontarians need to see benefits for all the hard work they have done in controlling the pandemic to this point, Ford said.
The easing of restrictions will start Monday, with capacity limits lifted in restaurants, bars, gyms, casinos and indoor meeting and event spaces.
If museums and galleries, places of worship, and personal care settings require proof of vaccination, they can lift capacity limits on Monday too. Night clubs, wedding receptions that involve dancing, and sex clubs can lift capacity limits as of Nov. 15.
Proof-of-vaccination requirements will also start to be lifted early next year -- as long as trends don't become concerning -- starting with restaurants, bars, gyms and casinos in January.
Ontario is aiming to lift all remaining measures, including masking requirements and emergency orders, as well as the proof-of-vaccination in other settings such as sporting events and concert venues, on March 28, 2022.
By then, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said, hopefully enough Ontarians are immunized, including children aged five to 11, so the virus can't find hosts in which to reproduce.
"We'll have a very good point to be able to look at the data to review a safe opening for all of Ontario," he said.
"And then we will have to learn to live with this virus, but it gives us a significant amount of time to build up the immunization protection of our population."
Restaurants Canada, which was angered when capacity limits were lifted on large venues ahead of small businesses such as restaurants, said it was pleased with the plan.
"We thought we should have been open two weeks ago, but we're happy that it's finally here and restaurants will work throughout the weekend to make sure they're ready to open fully by Monday," said James Rilett, the group's vice-president for Central Canada.
He said it's heartening that restaurants are set to have the requirement for proof of vaccination lifted before other establishments.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also said it was glad to see the playing field levelled, but both organizations called on the government to provide more supports for businesses to implement the vaccine certificate system.
Ford said he wants to do everything possible to avoid broad lockdowns, and if any public health measures need to be brought back in place, it will be done in a localized way.
Targeted and local measures could include re-establishing capacity limits or distancing requirements, requiring proof of vaccination, reducing gathering limits, and recommending or requiring that people who can, work from home.
In modelling released earlier Friday, a group of science experts advising the government said the province can control the spread of COVID-19 if public health measures stay in place.
The experts said a combination of vaccination and public health measures has led to declining case counts and stable hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
But as cold weather approaches, driving more activities indoors where the risk of transmission is higher, the science table said continuing some public health measures is necessary to maintain control of the pandemic.
Modelling shows that if there is no change in policy or people's behaviours, cases will continue to decline, while some increase in social contacts will keep cases stable. A "substantial" increase in contacts could lead to more than 600 daily cases by the end of November.
All of those scenarios assume public health measures such as masking, a proof-of-vaccination system, symptom screening and good ventilation and filtration continue.
The province paused plans in mid-August to exit Step 3 of its reopening framework as fourth-wave cases were rising.
Now, the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases is stable, nearly 88 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a vaccine and proof of vaccination is required to access several venues, including restaurants, cinemas and event spaces.
Ontario reported 492 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday -- 325 of those are in people not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown. There are 149 people in intensive care units due to COVID-19, 128 of them aren't fully vaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.