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Customers Dhaval Bhatt, left, and Sean McDonald enjoy a drink on the patio at Allen's on the Danforth in Toronto on June 11, 2021, as COVID-19 lockdown measures are lightened to allow for customers on patios in Ontario.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Ontario is accelerating the reopening of its economy as COVID-19 recedes, advancing to the third step of its framework next Friday and allowing indoor restaurant dining, larger gatherings and crowds at sports events five days earlier than planned.

The move, approved by Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet on Friday morning, sets the stage for most of Ontario’s other pandemic restrictions to be lifted after another 21 days, in early August – if the rapid pace of vaccinations continues and the virus’s more contagious Delta variant, now common across the province, can be contained.

Just days ago, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, was reluctant to speed up the reopening. But on Friday, he said the province’s vaccine rollout, which has already doubled the 25-per-cent target for adults with second doses set for entry into Step 3, had made the difference.

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Ontario now says 78.9 per cent of adults have had a first dose, and 52.7 per cent have received second doses. Plus, the rate of second jabs in arms is rising by almost 10 per cent a week.

“I have to thank all Ontarians. It’s through immunization that we’ll be able to limit the spread of this virus,” Dr. Moore told reporters, noting that the number of patients with COVID-19 in intensive care also remains on a downward trend.

Ontario’s case counts continue to sink, despite worrying outbreaks in some health districts: The province recorded 183 new cases on Friday, with just 0.7 per cent of all COVID-19 tests coming back positive. The case rate continued its decline even after Ontario entered Step 2 on June 30, which reopened patios and retail with strict capacity limits.

The Premier did not hold a media conference, but took a handful of questions on Friday from a TV news camera operator while touring a vaccine centre in Brampton, west of Toronto.

Mr. Ford encouraged Ontarians to keep getting vaccinated, but would not commit to moving past Step 3 any sooner: “I give all the thanks to the people of Ontario. But folks, this isn’t over by any means. We still have a good battle on our hands.”

Under its plan, Ontario needs to have given at least 80 per cent of its adult population a first dose, and 75 per cent a second dose, to move beyond Step 3′s restrictions after 21 days.

For now, masking in indoor settings and social distancing rules remain in place. (Dr. Moore said masking may not remain mandatory by the fall, but that he intended to keep wearing a mask in crowded public places, such as on public transit.)

The new Step 3 rules will take effect at 12:01 a.m. across the province on July 16, ahead of the original scheduled date of July 21. Under the changes, up to 100 people can attend outdoor social gatherings, with a cap of 25 for indoor gatherings. Indoor religious services are allowed as long as physical distancing is in place. Movie theatres and concert venues can open, but with capacity limits.

Indoor dining at restaurants can resume, with no limits on the number of people per table but with physical distancing requirements and other restrictions. Capacity limits on retailers for indoor shopping will be relaxed, only requiring them to limit their customers as needed in order to maintain two metres of physical distancing.

Indoor sports and recreation facilities, including gyms, can open at 50-per-cent capacity. Spectators indoors are limited to 50-per-cent capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is less. For outdoor sports spectators, capacity is capped at 75 per cent or 15,000, whichever is less. (Both the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto FC have previously said they hope to be able to play home games this month.)

Andrew Morris, an infectious-disease physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network, and a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said Ontario was right to loosen the rules as it had hit vaccination targets. But he warned against complacency and said more needs to be done to further boost vaccination rates, especially among younger adults.

“There is still a fair amount of the pandemic left to bite us, unless we do everything possible,” Dr. Morris said, citing the rise in cases in Israel and Britain.

Business groups welcomed the move to Step 3. But Dan Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said hard-hit small businesses need more help from the government to recover.

With a report from Susan Krashinsky Robertson

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