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People sit socially distanced at Humber Bay Shores park in Toronto in this file photo from May 24, 2020.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Ontario is cracking down on private parties and social gatherings in the COVID-19 hot spots of Toronto, Ottawa and Peel Region, but the changes won’t apply to businesses or event spaces.

Premier Doug Ford announced on Thursday that the government will limit social gatherings in the three regions, where a majority of new coronavirus cases are located, to 10 people inside and 25 people outside, a change from the previous limit of 50 people inside and 100 outside. Ontario also introduced legislation to raise fines for breaking the rules, with a minimum fine of $10,000 for party organizers and $750 for anyone who attends the event.

With coronavirus cases in the province rising to the highest levels since June – including two days this week with more than 300 cases – Mr. Ford said the public health trends in the three areas are “concerning.” Peel Region, west of Toronto, includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton.

“We will throw the book at you if you break the rules," Mr. Ford said. “This is to send a message for the reckless, careless people that want to hold these parties, and put their neighbours and the community in jeopardy."

The government said the new limits, which take effect Friday, apply to parties, gatherings or wedding receptions held in private residences or in backyards, parks and other recreational areas. But they don’t apply to staffed facilities or businesses such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, convention centres or banquet halls, gyms and recreational sporting or performing arts events, where previous gathering limits remain in place. Mr. Ford said weddings held at event spaces, for instance, follow stricter rules than in private homes.

Asked by reporters on Thursday why gatherings are limited to 10 people inside, when class sizes in the province have not been lowered, Mr. Ford – along with chief medical officer of health David Williams – said it’s a different situation.

“We’re comparing apples and oranges here,” Mr. Ford said, adding that schools have cohorts of students, masking policies and sanitizing procedures, and he dismissed “comparing it to a wild party in the backyard that people are drinking, hugging, kissing, spitting, every other thing they could possibly think of.”

The Opposition NDP on Thursday forced a vote on a motion to cap all class sizes at no more than 15 students. But it failed after Progressive Conservative MPs did not support it.

“Doug Ford announced today that it’s no longer safe to have more than 10 people gather indoors, yet he’s still forcing classrooms to be jammed full, with 25 or 30 kids, and school buses to be packed with up to 70 kids,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called the move to limit gatherings a good first step, but “far more is needed” – including details of the province’s plan for the second wave of the virus.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto General Hospital who sits on a provincial roundtable for a health data initiative, said scaling back gathering limits is a smart move for regions that are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.

But he said he remains concerned that the origin of the virus remains unknown for roughly 50 per cent of cases.

“It’s very helpful to limit the number of people,” he said. “Another issue is how do you communicate that, how do you enforce that, and also I think it would be unrealistic to think that this is going to solve all the problems.”

The new legislation introduced on Thursday will also freeze residential rent for most tenants in 2021.

Ontario also said it would extend an already-promised ban on evictions for small businesses that qualify for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, but whose landlords choose not to apply on their behalf. The extension is until the end of October. The federal government has said it will wrap up the rent program at the end of September, however, as it considers other options for small-business rent supports.

With a report from Josh O’Kane in Toronto

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