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Customers at Allen's pub in Toronto are served by a masked waiter on Nov. 22, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has unveiled an endgame for his government’s pandemic restrictions that suggests the province’s new vaccine-certificate regime could start to lift by mid-January, with mandatory indoor mask-wearing and all other measures gone by the end of March.

The first plank of the long-term pandemic plan Mr. Ford released Friday takes effect Monday, and will see the lifting of all COVID-19 physical-distancing rules for restaurants, bars and gyms. The province’s decision earlier this month to leave those rules in place while allowing theatres and large sports venues – including the home of the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs – to operate at full capacity was criticized by many in the hard-hit restaurant industry.

The rest of the plan, which the Premier unveiled alongside Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore and Health Minister Christine Elliott, lays out a tentative timeline to lift all remaining public-health measures – including mask mandates and Ontario’s recently implemented vaccine-certificate rules – by the end of March, 2022.

But the province says its “cautious” and “gradual” plan will still be subject to key indicators, including the ability of hospital intensive care units to cope with COVID-19 patients – and that targeted local measures may be needed to counter spikes in different regions.

“Let me reinforce the word cautious. We have always been cautious. I am going to be supercautious,” Mr. Ford told reporters at Queen’s Park. “If we’re not seeing the numbers in a stable place, we’re just not going to do it.”

While Mr. Ford said Friday the province had “never underestimated this virus,” his government was stung by a backlash earlier this year when it started reopening in defiance of scientific advice and the province’s hospitals were swamped. Now, Ontario has the lowest infection rate in Canada while other provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, have faced devastating fourth waves.

Under the new plan, as of Oct. 25 at 12:01 a.m., Ontario will lift physical-distancing requirements for businesses where its vaccine-certificate rules are in place, including restaurants, bars, gyms, casinos and bingo halls. The government will also allow other businesses and institutions still subject to physical-distancing requirements to lift them if they opt into the vaccine-certificate regime, including salons, barber shops, museums and art galleries, along with venues that hold weddings, funerals or religious services.

On Nov. 15, Ontario plans to remove capacity limits in higher-risk settings such as dance clubs or strip clubs. By Jan. 17, the government says, if trends remain positive, it could begin lifting its proof-of-vaccination requirements gradually in restaurants and bars, gyms and arenas. Starting Feb. 7, vaccine-certificate requirements could also be lifted for nightclubs and some other higher-risk spaces. Under the plan, all other remaining measures, including mandatory mask-wearing, could be lifted by March 28.

Andrew Morris, an infectious-disease physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network and a member of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said loosening rules as winter sets in and more interactions move indoors could see cases go upward. Other countries, even those with high vaccination rates, have seen the virus come roaring back, he said.

“They don’t have a lot of wiggle room … My fear is the numbers will start to rise and we won’t have a clear sense how to stop it,” Dr. Morris said.

He also said the government was making a “strategic error” by signalling it would start winding down its vaccine-certificate regime in just three months, if part of the plan’s initial purpose was to encourage people to get the vaccine. Now, determined vaccine resisters need only wait it out until January.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said in a statement it was relieved about the lifting of restrictions on restaurants and said it hoped “this puts an end to government policies that favour large businesses, like big box stores or large sporting venues, over Ontario’s small businesses.”

Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, urged the government to ensure any moves to drop masks or vaccine rules are “evidence-based” and “do not put our reopening and recovery at risk.”

In a statement, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) said it was disappointed by the announcement, calling the plan a gamble. RNAO CEO Doris Grinspun said the government should not be loosening its rules as winter approaches.

Earlier on Friday, Ontario’s independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released new modelling suggesting that the number of daily new infections should remain relatively stable for the next month, provided Ontario maintains public-health rules such as mandatory masking, vaccine certificates, improved ventilation and symptom screening.

Under a worst-case scenario, where the number of contacts per person increases, the province could see over 600 new cases a day by the end of November. Under a best-case scenario, that number drops below 200. Ontario reported 492 new cases on Friday – 325 of those involved unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people or those whose vaccination status is unknown.

But the science table also warned that things could go wrong if Ontario were to lift too many restrictions too quickly, pointing to Denmark and Finland, which have eased masking and other rules and are now seeing a resurgence in cases, despite high vaccination rates.

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