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Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends a news conference in Toronto on Jan. 3, 2022.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The worst of the Omicron wave of COVID-19 is behind Ontario, Premier Doug Ford declared on Thursday as he announced plans to start lifting pandemic restrictions, while Quebec Premier François Legault declined to loosen any measures in his province but said he can see “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ontario will allow restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theatres to reopen with 50-per-cent capacity on Jan. 31, with limits on private indoor gathering raised to 10 from five. Larger venues such as arenas and concert halls will also be allowed to operate at 50-per-cent capacity or 500 people, whichever is less. (However, cinemas, sports facilities and other similar places will remain unable to serve food or drinks.)

It’s the first step in a new plan Mr. Ford unveiled to gradually ease pandemic restrictions, with more rules to be relaxed in February and capacity limits set to be largely eliminated by mid-March. Masking and the province’s vaccine certificate system are to remain.

However, the province’s health care system remains under severe strain, even though heath officials say the rates of increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions are slowing. An order cancelling non-emergency surgeries remains in effect to make way for COVID-19 patients, and health care unions warned Thursday that short-staffed hospitals were “besieged.” But Mr. Ford said the system could handle the load.

“We can be confident in our ability to care for people, to provide hospital beds to those who need them, and we can be confident that the worst is behind us,” Mr. Ford said at Queen’s Park, adding that the proportion of tests coming positive for COVID-19 has been declining sharply, hitting 15.9 per cent on Thursday.

Peter Juni, scientific director of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said while there are positive signs, it was too early to say whether the slowing rate of Omicron hospitalizations indicated a plateau or decrease. He said another week of data was needed to know if reopening on Jan. 31 was advised, pointing out that students just went back to school.

“Right now, data-wise we are not yet in a spot that would allow confident decision-making,” Dr. Juni said in an interview.

Doug Ford goes back and forth on COVID response

Rocco Rossi, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the reopening plan, but said the government needed “to stop thinking in short-term increments and come up with a strategic and evidence-based plan to manage future waves.”

Both Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called for the province to update its vaccine-certificate rules to require a third booster shot for people to be classified as fully vaccinated. Asked if he was considering this, Mr. Ford offered only a short answer: “Not at this time.”

Ontario still has more than 4,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital – well above the level of previous waves – and 594 people with the virus in intensive care. Daily deaths also continue to rise to levels not seen since previous waves, with 75 reported on Thursday, although the government said the high number was due to a “data cleanup” and includes deaths from previous days. Ontario reported 59 new deaths the day before.

While the government says health care staff shortages appeared to be stabilizing, Heath Minister Christine Elliott said the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs was not expected to peak until mid-February.

“There are some positive signs that we may be reaching the peak of the Omicron wave in Ontario,” Ms. Elliott said on Thursday. “However, we still need to remain humble and cautious.”

Meanwhile, Quebec’s Premier said the current health measures in his hard-hit province would stay in place for now. While his government lifted its 10 p.m. curfew this week and sent children back to class, all of the province’s bars, restaurant dining rooms and theatres have been closed since December. The province is also set to apply a vaccination requirement to big-box stores in the coming days, after applying it to provincial liquor and cannabis stores.

Hospitalizations declined in Quebec on Wednesday for the first time this year after soaring to record levels in recent weeks, dropping by 14 to 3,411. But the Premier cautioned against easing public-health measures too quickly.

“For the moment, the situation remains very difficult,” Mr. Legault said. “I understand that we are all tired, but lives are at stake.”

With a report from Eric Andrew-Gee in Montreal

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