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People walk through the Rideau Centre, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ottawa on July 13, 2020.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Indoor restaurants and bars, gyms and playgrounds will be allowed to reopen in most of Ontario on Friday, but not in the Toronto area and parts of the province’s southwest.

Premier Doug Ford’s government is also significantly boosting the number of people allowed to gather – to 100 outside and 50 inside – as part of the province’s Stage 3 COVID-19 reopening plan announced on Monday.

“It’s an important step in getting life back to normal,” Mr. Ford said at Queen’s Park.

Mr. Ford said 24 out of the province’s 34 regions are moving to Stage 3 starting Friday. But Toronto and surrounding areas, Niagara, as well as Haldimand-Norfolk, Lambton and Windsor-Essex – where there have been significant outbreaks among migrant workers – will have to wait until a later date.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said child-care centres will soon be allowed to increase the number of children and staff in “cohort” groups to 15 from 10. Beginning on July 27, Mr. Lecce said child-care centres across the province will be operating at 90-per-cent capacity, adding that he will soon provide more details of the province’s plan to return to schools.

Mr. Ford said he wants to see every child in Ontario back to school “full time” in September.

“But we will not take unnecessary risk when it comes to our children and that’s why we have to continue planning for every possible scenario,” he said.

As part of Stage 3, restaurants and bars can resume dine-in services, but patrons must be seated and maintain physical distancing from other tables. Other businesses that can reopen are gyms, fitness studios, community centres, facial services, movie theatres, festivals, parties and receptions, concerts and parts of casinos, with physical distancing and gathering limits in place.

But amusement parks, buffets, overnight camps, private karaoke rooms, “prolonged” contact sports, saunas and steam rooms, and table games at casinos are still outlawed – as well as dancing at restaurants and bars. However, some businesses can submit a plan to the government for exemptions.

While the government is boosting indoor gathering limits to 50 and outdoor limits to 100 – with physical-distancing measures in place – Ontario is still telling people to limit their “social circles” to 10 people. Social circles are comprised of those who can get together without maintaining physical distancing.

Asked about bars reopening, in light of outbreaks in the United States and other jurisdictions, Mr. Ford said that Ontario is being cautious. Still, he said the number of COVID-19 cases in places such as Florida has been “staggering.”

“That is scary, but we’re being pretty vigilant, we’re not rushing into anything,” he said.

Toronto Mayor John Tory and the city’s Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa, praised Queen’s Park for taking a regional approach that recognizes the unique challenges of the province’s biggest city.

“We need to reopen with caution,” Dr. de Villa said. “Some cities, which had modest outbreaks, are now reporting spikes, whereas others are reporting sudden and alarming surges of infections.”

Mr. Tory said that he was particularly worried about the safety of the city’s thousands of bars when Toronto does eventually go to Stage 3, floating without specifics the possibility that they could face additional protective measures.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, however, criticized the government for revealing its plan to reopen bars before schools.

“Securing a safe place for kids to be Monday to Friday should be a higher priority than allowing people to crowd into bars and restaurants,” Mr. Schreiner said in a statement. “A failure to invest in childcare and education solutions will dampen the recovery and hurt women the most.”

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital who sits on the province’s roundtable for its new Ontario Health Data Platform, said he agrees with the government’s regional approach as long as it is done properly.

“The key things here are, can this be implemented appropriately and do we have the capacity to rapidly identify cases and quell outbreaks when they inevitably arise. If that can be done, we’ll be okay,” Dr. Bogoch said.

Much of Ontario entered Stage 2 on June 19, which allowed for restaurant patios and salons to reopen. But Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region didn’t join until June 24, and the last two towns in Stage 1 – Leamington and Kingsville – moved up on July 7.

The province recorded 116 additional cases of the novel coronavirus on Monday, with 21 regions reporting no new cases. Ontario also reported another three deaths linked to the virus.

With a report from The Canadian Press and Oliver Moore

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