TORONTO - Ontario will allow more businesses to reopen, expand access to child care and loosen strict limits on indoor gatherings as it pushes ahead with its pandemic recovery this week, Premier Doug Ford announced Monday as he touted the “cautious” plan to continue the economic restart.
Stage 3 of the provincial reopening effort begins Friday in regions outside the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, the Niagara Region, and Windsor-Essex, Ford said.
All other health units cleared to enter the next phase of economic recovery will see significant changes in everything from public gathering limits to the range of services available.
Jurisdictions entering Stage 3 will be able to hold indoor gatherings of up to 50 people not including venue staff, while outdoor gatherings can now include as many as 100 people as long as physical distancing measures are in place.
“We're being pretty vigilant, we aren't rushing into anything,” Ford said. “We're opening up slowly in Stage 3, and being very, very cautious about it.”
Ford said the arrival of Stage 3 means most businesses will be allowed to resume operations at levels not seen since before the pandemic prompted widespread shutdowns in mid-March.
Restaurants, for instance, will be permitted to resume indoor service as long as tables are spaced two metres apart to encourage physical distancing. Bars and night clubs will be allowed to serve food and host live entertainment, but dancing will not be allowed indoors.
Fitness facilities, movie theatres, casinos, performance venues and conference centres are among the businesses given the green light to reopen with public health measures in place.
Personal care services, which largely resumed under Stage 2 last month, can expand to include facial contact - though saunas and steam rooms are still banned under the new rules.
A handful of services and business types remain banned under the relaxed regulations, including amusement and water parks, restaurant buffet service, overnight children's camps and private karaoke rooms.
Ford said the move to Stage 3 was made possible by the continued decline in COVID-19 numbers across most of the province, noting 21 of 34 local health units reported no new cases at all on Monday.
The rollout resembles the transition to Stage 2, with only outbreak hotspots and border regions being held back.
Most of Ontario entered Stage 2 of reopening on June 12, with another seven regions following on June 19.
Toronto, Peel and parts of Windsor-Essex were allowed to progress to Stage 2 five days later, and the remaining communities were in the second stage as of July 7.
Ford said the government would provide updates each Monday as to when new regions may be able to enter the next phase of the recovery plan.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province was planning to expand the number of children allowed in daycare centres effective July 27, from the current cohorts of 10 to 15 children.
Lecce said that should help restore 90 per cent of the province's pre-pandemic child-care system capacity.
“We know how critical child care is to ensure that all working moms and dads can return to work safely,” Lecce said.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said people should expect that many of the public health measures that restrict gatherings and dictate the need for physical distancing will remain in place for the “foreseeable future.”
Public health officials will monitor for any spike in COVID-19 cases and could move parts of the province back to previous stages if required, she said.
Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said all regions of the province could be in Stage 3 by the end of the month “if everything goes well.”
Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod said amateur sports and playgrounds will also be allowed to open again as Stage 3 comes into effect, though there will be no contact sports and activities will still have to adhere to physical distancing rules.
“This is a very slow and gradual start to get kids back into the recreational activities that they love,” MacLeod said.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said its members will be relieved to reopen Friday, but revenues will not be enough to keep many afloat in the coming months.
Julie Kwiecinski, CFIB's director of provincial affairs for Ontario, said the provincial and federal governments will need to enhance programs that provide business loans, help pay rent, and defer costs.
“You've got programs already in place,” Kwiecinski said. “If you tweak them a little bit, you will get more people that qualify, and more businesses will benefit.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government must put further supports in place for businesses in regions that are being left behind in Stage 2.
“As we prepare to move into a new stage of our economic reopening, we must remember that small businesses across the province are struggling because Doug Ford didn't provide the kind of direct support needed to keep Main Street healthy and vibrant,” she said.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the province's reopening should have a greater focus on children than opening up bars.
“We are still without a sound plan for education or new funding for child-care providers to implement COVID-19 safety protocols,” Schreiner said in a statement.
Ontario reported 116 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, along with three new deaths due to the novel coronavirus.
-with files from Liam Casey.