Ontario is moving up the first step of its COVID-19 reopening plan by three days, allowing people to dine on restaurant patios, shop in non-essential retail stores, and attend campsites and outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people as of Friday.
The staged reopening plan was originally scheduled to kick in next Monday. But the province says it has exceeded its goal for administering first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations, while new cases and hospitalization continue to drop. The changes, approved in a Monday morning cabinet meeting, take effect Friday at 12:01 a.m.
But under the province’s timeline, it will still be at least 21 days, or July 2, before Step 2 – which allows for haircuts and outdoor sports leagues – could come into effect.
The Ontario Hospital Association, which has supported the staged reopening plans, welcomed the earlier start, as did Toronto-area mayors.
This first step requires at least 60 per cent of Ontario’s population to have received a first dose of the vaccine. As of Monday, 72 per cent of adults aged 18 and older in the province had received one dose. Daily new case counts continued to drop, with just 525 recorded on Monday, the lowest total since last September. There were 15 deaths. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units also continued to fall, slipping to 497 – a level still well above the thresholds identified earlier in the pandemic that put hospitals under serious strain.
In addition to allowing outdoor gatherings of 10 people, this first step allows non-essential retailers to reopen, but with a 15-per-cent capacity limit. Restaurant patios can open for four people a table, with an exception for larger households. Day camps and overnight camping at Ontario Parks are permitted, as are outdoor fitness classes of up to 10 people, outdoor horse races without spectators and outdoor zoos. Indoor religious services and wedding and funeral ceremonies can go ahead, but with 15-per-cent capacity. Outdoor services are allowed as long as spacing of two metres between guests can be maintained.
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The government has also updated regulations to allow for outdoor graduations for students of all ages, although many school boards plan to stick to virtual celebrations.
The government’s benchmark for its second stage of reopening, which could happen July 2, is 70 per cent of the adult population with one dose, and 20 per cent fully vaccinated with two doses. As of Monday, 9 per cent of Ontario adults – more than a million people in all – had received two doses. But the province just opened up its booking system for second doses to anyone over 70 on Monday.
As it eases restrictions, Ontario is also facing calls to send more vaccines to virus hot spots, where concern is mounting about the spread of the more-contagious Delta variant, first found in India, and the need for a second dose for people to be fully protected. Opposition politicians and mayors, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, said Monday that the province should send more vaccines to hard-hit areas, as it did in April.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott has not publicly committed to the idea.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician in Toronto who sits on Ontario’s vaccine task force, said the COVID-19 science table, the province and the task force have been discussing strategies for second doses that look at people who are at greater risk, as well as hot-spot communities. But he said he didn’t know when an announcement would be made.
Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health in hard-hit Peel Region, said Peel is beginning to ramp up its vaccine capacity once again, regardless of whether Ontario will send more doses to the hot-spot areas: “Whether there’s that allocation or not, we just need to get second doses into arms as quickly as possible.”
Dr. Loh, who said he is supportive of moving to the first stage of reopening, also said Monday that his health unit now will no longer automatically shut workplaces with five or more cases of COVID-19, starting on Friday.
The health unit will still close workplaces with outbreaks when necessary, he said. But it is now seeing fewer outbreaks and can instead work with businesses on improving infection prevention. He cautioned that workplaces remain at risk, particularly as the Delta variant spreads.
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said some health units were having trouble using all the vaccines they had been allotted. But he said if hot spots need more vaccine, the province would allocate more. Associate Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe said more vaccines had already been allocated to the remote northern communities in the Porcupine health district that are now experiencing a sharp increase in new cases, in contrast to the rest of the province.
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