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A bartender wears a mask at a bar in Toronto on August 18, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is limiting alcohol sales at bars and restaurants and requiring establishments to close by midnight, as well as closing all strip clubs across the province, in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The new rules, which take effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m., will require bars, restaurants and nightclubs to stop serving alcohol after 11 p.m. and for all establishments to close from midnight until 5 a.m. They will still be allowed to provide takeout and delivery after hours.

The province is also closing all strip clubs in the province, after outbreaks were reported at two clubs in Toronto in the past two months.

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the decision to limit bar hours was made on advice from his Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, and other medical experts, as infections continue to rise rapidly.

“I don’t think it’s a huge ask, if they can stop serving drinks at 11 o’clock, close their establishments at 12 o’clock,” Mr. Ford said at a press conference held to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars for the health system to deal with a backlog in surgeries and other procedures caused by COVID-19.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, the city’s health officials and city council have been calling for the province to enforce earlier closing times for bars as far back as July, as Ontario allowed the city to reopen.

Mr. Ford said his government declined to enforce earlier bar hours back in the summer because case counts were lower.

Ontario’s decision to limit alcohol sales and bar hours follows similar measures in Quebec and British Columbia.

While the Ontario government said private social gatherings continue to be a “significant source” of transmission, outbreaks in restaurants, bars and strip clubs have also contributed to the rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, particularly among those between 20 and 39 years old.

The new government orders also require businesses to follow provincial health advice, including screening patrons before they enter the premises.

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In a letter distributed on Thursday by the Ontario Hospital Association, 38 physicians and health care experts called for the government to immediately restrict non-essential businesses and activities “that facilitate social gatherings and increase opportunities for exposure.” Those include bars and dine-in restaurants, nightclubs, gyms, theatres and places of worship.

Ontario on Friday reported 409 cases of COVID-19, with 65 per cent of new cases occurring in those under the age of 40.

Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, said the new restrictions on bar hours will hurt some of his members who are already among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic.

For some business models, even in normal times, he said alcohol served close to last call on weekends makes the difference between profits and losses. He also warned that closing bars earlier would see patrons head to private dwellings to continue drinking – without bar staff on hand to enforce physical distancing or other public health measures.

To soften the pandemic’s blow, Mr. Elenis has also been urging the Progressive Conservative government to give bars and restaurants a 20-per-cent discount on the prices they pay to the province’s liquor monopoly for alcohol.

“We need relief,” Mr. Elenis said. “We were the first to be hit. We will be the last to come out of it.”

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