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Many regions in Ontario will be allowed to open restaurant and bar patios, hair salons and other services on Friday, but Toronto and its surrounding areas will have to wait until the number of COVID-19 cases goes down.

Premier Doug Ford announced Monday that Ontario is taking a regional approach with the next stage of its reopening plan. But the province is also permitting social gatherings of 10 people, up from five, and churches and places of worship can open at 30-per-cent capacity – changes that apply to the entire province.

Starting Friday, 24 of the province’s 34 public-health regions – excluding the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton, the Niagara region, the border city of Windsor, and Haldimand-Norfolk, which has seen outbreaks among migrant farm workers – will be allowed to open more businesses and resume some activities. Restaurants and bars will only be able to open outdoor areas to start, but the province is making it easier for licensed establishments to expand patios onto sidewalks, parking lots and even into city streets, with municipal approval.

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Quebec also announced Monday that it is opening restaurants, including indoor areas, in many areas of the province on June 15, except for Montreal and some other regions, which can open a week later. Small indoor gatherings of fewer than 10 people will also be allowed.

In Ontario, the news comes as Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, said Monday that the spread of the virus in her city is still moving in the wrong direction, with an average of 140 new cases of COVID-19 every day. Ontario on Monday reported 243 cases, the lowest in two months.

According to government figures, the 10 public-health units that must remain in Stage 1 account for more than 90 per cent of total new cases in the province in the past two weeks. Three quarters of these cases were reported in Toronto and Peel Region.

Mr. Ford, who initially resisted a regional approach, said the province’s decision was made in conjunction with the Chief Medical Officer of Health and local health authorities. Still, he said he hoped it won’t be long for other areas to reopen as well.

“We need just a little more time. … I am confident that the rest of the province will get to Stage 2 very, very soon,” he said.

“I just realized that this isn’t fair to punish people in rural areas because of big urban centres."

Still, Mr. Ford said he won’t prohibit people from the GTA from travelling to other areas of the province, adding that some mayors in Ontario’s northern cottage communities said they also want people to come and shop in local stores.

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The Ontario government said it made the decision to reopen based on key public-health indicators such as lower rates of transmission, increased capacity in hospitals, and progress made in testing.

As part of Stage 2, cities such as Ottawa, Peterborough, Kingston, Waterloo and Thunder Bay will be permitted to open some facilities. Those include outdoor restaurant and bar patios; hair and beauty salons; shopping malls with only takeout food; outdoor splash pads, wading pools and swimming pools; outdoor team sports training facilities; provincial beaches; and camping at Ontario parks and private campgrounds. Weddings and funerals are limited to 10 people. Playgrounds and play structures remain closed.

In Toronto, Dr. de Villa said testing delays and communication problems with the province’s labs and hospitals were hampering her department’s efforts to quickly get in touch with new positive cases in order to trace their contacts – a key weapon in containing the disease.

She said it can take up to four days for Toronto Public Health to receive test results, and that they arrive in a “non-digital bulk format,” requiring her staff to extract the information needed to start contact-tracing investigations from a “complex morass.”

“There are a number of challenges that continue to need attention and need resolution,” Dr. de Villa said, calling for a new provincial system that would process test results more quickly.

She said the current system was “outdated” and “labour intensive” and that sometimes her department receives test results without any of the contact information needed to follow up.

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Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease physician based out of Toronto General Hospital, said it makes sense for Ontario to be taking a regional approach to reopening, seeing as many areas of the province have few or no cases.

“Of course, we know that people can travel around the province … so by no means does lifting some of the public-health restrictions in those areas mean that people should ignore the basic tenets to prevent this infection,” he said, citing hand hygiene, physical-distancing measures and the use of masks.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the right steps are being taken to improve the situation here.”

At the beginning of each week, the Ontario government says, it will announce which regions will be allowed to move into the second stage of reopening.

Mr. Ford also said the province will announce details about child care on Tuesday.

With a report from Danielle Webb in Toronto

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