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Families in Ontario can now expand the number of people they have close contact with to 10, as the province moved Friday to further loosen public health restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadian Press

Ontario says residents can now form “social circles” of up to 10 people whom they can see without practising physical distancing, as more businesses and services reopen in many areas of the province.

The new guidelines from Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health mean people across the province can gather with nine others in close contact as long as everyone chooses one another to be in their circle. It is not enforceable, but provincial officials said it is viewed as guidance for people who want to kiss, hug or touch their family and friends after months of self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This means finally hugging your grandparent or sharing a meal with your parents or closest friends,” Premier Doug Ford said Friday.

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“The social-circle police aren’t going to be knocking on your door; we trust you’re going to be doing the right thing."

Versions of social circles – also known as social or family bubbles – are already in effect in other provinces including British Columbia and New Brunswick.

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However, “social circles” are different from the province’s recently announced change to the size of social gatherings, which also increased to 10 people starting Friday.

Social gatherings – which are enforceable by fines – are not limited to the same 10 people but must take place with physical distancing, provincial officials said.

In 24 regions across the province, businesses such as hair salons, restaurant and bar patios and shopping malls were allowed to reopen on Friday as part of Ontario’s Stage 2 economic plan. But the Greater Toronto Area, as well as the border regions of Windsor and Niagara, are so far excluded.

Mr. Ford urged patience from those areas, saying more regions of the province will reopen “very, very soon.” The government will announce every Monday which regions will be able to move to Stage 2 by the end of the week.

Ontario on Friday reported 182 new cases of COVID-19, the lowest increase since March 28, and 11 new deaths. The province processed more than 28,000 tests.

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Toronto officials also unveiled a new local online COVID-19 “dashboard,” which will allow residents to see how well the city is doing on a variety of public health indicators, including the rate of new infections, lab-testing delays, hospital capacity and public health’s ability to track down new positive cases and their contacts.

Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a general internist and clinical epidemiologist at Toronto’s University Health Network, said she was surprised the social circles are being implemented after Ontario had already announced it was reopening many areas of the economy.

She said it would have made more sense for the province to allow two households to get together at first, rather than 10 individuals who can come from multiple households. It gets complicated, she said, because everyone has to agree to being in the same circle, including family and friends.

“Realistically I find it quite unlikely that people will really stick to that,” she said. “You will end up with potential chains of transmission across groups.”

In Thunder Bay, which is part of the Stage 2 reopening on Friday, John Murray of the Red Lion Smokehouse said the patio is booked for the weekend, even though customers are usually from the United States or outside of the city. Mr. Murray said before being seated, customers will be screened for symptoms as well as whether they’ve recently travelled.

“If we do find out that someone’s from out of region, we’ll deny them. We just feel like that’s the safest thing for our staff,” he said.

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First Nations in the area said travel and visitor restrictions will remain in place, even as the economy reopens. At the onset of the pandemic, First Nations across the country tightened up restrictions, allowing only medical and essential workers in and out their communities, particularly the First Nations accessible by plane only.

The Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority said minimizing the risk of importing the virus into the communities is part of their pandemic plans. “With Ontario opening up in the south, it will make the challenge of preventing the virus more difficult because of increased travel going into, and out of, the communities,” communications officer Michael Dubé said.

The fear remains among First Nations that they don’t have appropriate resources and infrastructure to effectively and safely treat a potential COVID-19 outbreak. Many are also worried about their vulnerable populations including babies, elders and those with health conditions such as diabetes. Access to health care and doctors in remote First Nations is limited, and patients are taken by air ambulance to Winnipeg and Thunder Bay for medical emergencies.

With a report from Jeff Gray in Toronto

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