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A healthcare worker walks along the line up of people waiting outside a COVID-19 testing facility in Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Weddings, housewarming parties, birthday celebrations and family get-togethers are all contributing to a worrisome spike in COVID-19 cases in Ontario, spurring the province’s Premier to promise stricter limits on large gatherings in coronavirus hot spots.

Medical officers of health in the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa – where 80 per cent of the 315 new cases announced Wednesday are located – are beginning to reveal more about why the epidemic in Canada’s most populous province is growing at rates not seen since the spring.

In Toronto, contact tracers are investigating four separate weddings that have so far led to 22 confirmed infections, said Eileen de Villa, the city’s Medical Officer of Health.

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While socializing inside homes and at crowded events are the main drivers of the increase, Dr. de Villa said infections are also beginning to pop up at bars and restaurants where the virus has spread primarily among staff, but occasionally to patrons.

West of Toronto in Peel Region, workplace outbreaks in the manufacturing, warehouse and food-processing sectors are spilling over into employees' homes and spreading further at social gatherings, Peel Medical Officer of Health Lawrence Loh told reporters on Wednesday.

In York Region, north of Toronto, a wedding celebration that took place over two days in late August has now been linked to 46 cases, 29 of them in York residents, according to Karim Kurji, York’s Medical Officer of Health. The nuptials involved events at the bride’s home and the groom’s home, both in York Region, and at two temples in Toronto.

York Region, which includes the cities of Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Markham, is also investigating a spate of large indoor get-togethers, including a recent housewarming party that has already led to 10 confirmed cases.

In some instances, Dr. Kurji said, people are playing host to crammed house parties that approach the province’s 50-person limit on indoor gatherings in the mistaken belief that they’re following the rules.

“By and large, these [gatherings] have been close to the provincial guidelines of the limits of 50 indoors and 100 outdoors,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “However, the provincial guidelines talk about these limits in the context of being able to physically distance. Most of the individuals we interview indicate that physical distancing was impossible to maintain and that individuals were not masked.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday that his cabinet was meeting to discuss a proposal to limit large gatherings, including in the hot spots of Toronto, Ottawa and Peel Region, which includes the cities of Brampton and Mississauga, and promised there will be “severe” fines if rules aren’t followed.

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“They’re going to be the highest in the country,” Mr. Ford said. Details are expected as early as Thursday.

Mr. Ford said a wedding he attended this summer, at which he was photographed without a mask at a table, followed all the rules, and included temperature checks as well as requiring masks when moving around the room.

Mr. Ford also addressed the long lines at assessment centres in Toronto, Ottawa and London, with wait times in some cases as long as eight hours and people reporting being turned away because of overcrowding. He said his government is working with the private sector, including pharmacies, to ramp up testing for asymptomatic people.

In Ottawa, another city grappling with an increase, public-health officials reported 60 new cases on Wednesday after reporting 52 on Tuesday and 61 on Monday.

“We haven’t seen numbers this high since May,” Vera Etches, Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, told a news conference on Tuesday.

The increase in cases in Ottawa is beginning to spread into nursing homes, but in much smaller numbers than in April and May. One Ottawa long-term care home, Extendicare’s West End Villa, is in the grip of a major outbreak that has infected 46 residents and seven staff since Aug. 30. Six residents have died as of Wednesday, according to Ottawa Public Health.

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Dr. Etches reiterated that in the vast majority of cases where public-health officials have managed to trace the source, the culprit is social gatherings, especially those hosted indoors. The public-health unit hasn’t identified any outbreaks related to the restaurants that began welcoming back indoor diners in July, she said.

Other provinces are seeing a similar rise in cases. Quebec reported 303 new cases on Wednesday afternoon, with eight of its 18 health regions now at the yellow, or “early warning,” level of the province’s regional health system – the last level before closures begin. While some cases have been attributed to dining at restaurants, Quebec’s Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda told reporters this week that private parties were the “biggest problem” across the province.

Alberta and British Columbia have also recorded a steady rise in cases since August. B.C. ordered nightclubs and banquet halls to close last week, citing such venues as a major source of transmission behind climbing cases in that province.

With a report from Laura Stone

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