The Ontario government is planning to announce on Thursday a gradual reopening of the province over the next three months, beginning with lifting the ban on some outdoor activities as early as this weekend, sources say.
The plans have not yet been finalized, but according to two sources familiar with government deliberations, Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet has met to consider a new phased-in COVID-19 reopening plan. It could allow outdoor gatherings with five people from different households, plus outdoor activities such as golf and tennis, to resume with extra precautions as early as this weekend.
Other activities considered lower risk, such as larger outdoor gatherings, as well as outdoor fitness and restaurant patios, are not expected to be permitted until at least later in June. The sources were granted anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal discussions.
Cabinet met on Wednesday to discuss the plan and is expected to meet again on Thursday to finalize it. The province is under a stay-at-home order, which has left restaurants and non-essential retailers shut for weeks and expires on June 2. It is not known whether a timeline for a return to in-class learning will be part of Thursday’s announcement.
The proposed three-step plan would do away with Ontario’s previous colour-coded pandemic framework and lay out a timeline that would see non-essential retail stores and limited indoor activities open later in the summer.
One senior Progressive Conservative Party source familiar with the discussions said the government was looking to Saskatchewan’s recently unveiled reopening plan, which sets defined thresholds for different stages based on the progress of vaccinations. The plans before Mr. Ford’s cabinet, the source said, include Ontario’s own benchmarks based on factors such as vaccinations and new case counts, laying out clear targets for each phase of reopening.
Asked Wednesday about the plans, Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones would say little, but noted that the government was not looking at opening different regions before others, in order to discourage people from flocking to areas with lower restrictions. Asked when golf would resume, she would say only “in the fullness of time.”
Ms. Jones warned against defying public health directives on the approaching Victoria Day long weekend, saying that previous holidays have resulted in spikes of COVID-19 infections. She urged Ontarians to book a vaccine instead.
“I guess I am asking respectfully for people to be patient,” she told reporters.
Toronto Mayor John Tory echoed the need for a consistent approach to reopening, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. “I’m hopeful that, at the very least, that the region will be treated as one,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, issued a memo rescinding his month-old directive banning all non-emergency surgeries in the province as the number of patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 remained high, but continued to recede slowly. Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott, cautioned that the memo does not mean postponed procedures will resume “at this time,” and said that the resumption will vary in different regions.
Ontario’s hospitals, which have been flying critically ill patients across the province to make use of every spare bed, still had 732 COVID-19 patients in intensive care on Wednesday, a number that far exceeds normal thresholds. But that total is down from a peak of 891 on May 1. Ontario also accepted two COVID-19 patients from maxed-out hospitals in hard-hit Manitoba on Tuesday, providing ICU beds for them in Thunder Bay, the Canadian Press reported.
On Wednesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath demanded the government launch a full judicial inquiry into its handling of the pandemic – something Progressive Conservative House Leader Paul Calandra dismissed as “premature.”
Mr. Ford’s government faced a backlash last month after failing to heed recommendations from its scientific advisers as the third wave sent infection rates skyrocketing. Those advisers have since been calling on the government to reopen outdoor activities, which have not been linked to outbreaks.
Schools in Ontario have been closed to in-person learning more than any other province, and there have been calls from parents and doctors to open classrooms for the last few week of the academic year in areas where community transmission is low.
York Region has been in discussions with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and area school boards to determine whether students can return to the classroom by the end of the May, said Patrick Casey, a local public health spokesman.
Mr. Casey said in an e-mail statement on Wednesday that York Region would take its direction from the provincial government, but schools could reopen safely if transmission is low and a good proportion of educators are vaccinated. “Based on our modelling, current case load and vaccine coverage rate increases we are observing, York Region is optimistic these criteria can be met by May 31, 2021,” he said.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said that the government would follow the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health in reopening schools.
– with reports from Caroline Alphonso and Oliver Moore
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