TORONTO – Ontario will begin to gradually reopen its economy on Wednesday but the government said it would move regions back into lockdown if COVID-19 cases spiked.
Premier Doug Ford said the province’s state of emergency would expire as scheduled on Tuesday and regions would transition back to a colour-coded restrictions system over the next three weeks. Until then, a stay-at-home order would remain in place.
“We can’t return to normal, not yet,” Ford said on Monday. “But we can transition out of the provincewide shutdown.”
As part of its efforts, the province is changing the rules to allow previously closed non-essential retailers in lockdown zones to reopen with capacity limits of 25 per cent.
“To those business owners who are struggling, I want you to know that we have listened,” Ford said.
Three health units — Hastings Prince Edward; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington; and Renfrew County — will move into the least-restrictive green category on Wednesday, which means restaurants and non-essential businesses can reopen.
The Timiskaming Health Unit, which was also expected to move to the green category Wednesday, will be held back for a week since a COVID-19 variant was discovered in the region over the weekend, the province said.
On Feb. 16, all remaining regions except three hot spots in the Greater Toronto Area are set to move to the restrictions framework. The category they are placed in will depend on their local case rates.
Toronto, Peel Region and York Region are expected to be the last to make the transition on Feb. 22, but the province said any sudden increase in cases could delay that plan.
The province will also have an “emergency brake” in place to allow the government to quickly move a region back into lockdown if it experiences a rapid increase in cases or if its health-system becomes overwhelmed.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the measure is meant to help deal with the risk posed by new variants of COVID-19.
“This is not a reopening, or a return to normal,” she said. “It’s an acknowledgement that we are making steady progress.”
A provincial lockdown was imposed in late December and was followed by the state of emergency and a stay-at-home order that took effect Jan. 14 as COVID-19 rates surged.
While cases have since declined, public health officials have said the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19 are a concern.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, has said he would like to see daily cases drop below 1,000 and the number of patients with COVID-19 in hospital intensive care units below 150 before lifting restrictions.
On Monday, he urged residents to remain cautious and follow public health rules.
“That number is not down yet where we need it to be to step back from the brink,” he said of the province’s cases. “Some ICUs are still having challenges.”
Ontario reported 1,265 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and 33 new deaths due to the virus.
In total, 901 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 335 in intensive care, and 226 people are on ventilators.
Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said he was encouraged by the gradual approach to reopening but noted that without movement controls between regions people will once again begin to travel.
“You get what we call cross-contamination,” he said. “People from areas of high transmission of the disease going to areas where there’s low transmission, and you bring your problems to someone else.”
Morris said he is also skeptical about how Ontario will apply the so-called “emergency brake,” saying by the time it’s applied to regions it’ll already be too late.
“You have a linear response, an incremental response, to an exponential problem. And it gets out of control,” he said.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said the province should have delayed the economic reopening until two to three weeks after all students resume in-person learning to determine if that has been accomplished safely. Students in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region will return to physical classrooms next week while schools in other regions have reopened.
Doris Grinspun said with the increasing spread of variant strains, caution is necessary.
“Now is not the time to soften it up,” she said. “Now is the time to sit tight.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business which had recently asked that all businesses be allowed to open with a 20 per cent capacity limit, called Monday’s announcement a “small, positive step”.
But the group noted that even by Feb. 22, a number of regions are likely to remain in the strictest grey-lockdown category of the province’s restriction system.
“This is deeply unfair and will mean that in-person dining, personal services like hair and nail care, and gyms will remain in full lockdown with no end in sight,” the group said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized the government for not putting measures in place to make the reopening safe, including more paid sick days for workers and COVID-19 testing in the workplace.
“Without those stronger public health measures, (Ford) might be dooming us to the cycle of illness and lockdowns, again and again,” she said.