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Ontario Premier Doug Ford walks past an open door as he arrives for the daily briefing in Toronto on Feb. 8, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford unveiled plans to ease some of his province’s COVID-19 restrictions on Monday, despite concerns about more contagious variants of the virus that prompted Toronto’s medical officer of health to warn that her city faces a “new pandemic.”

The Premier, pointing to steadily slowing growth in infections, announced a timeline that would lift Ontario’s stay-at-home order and loosen rules for retailers in most of the province in a week’s time, while hardest-hit Toronto, York Region and Peel Region would only begin reopening on Feb. 22 – unless conditions worsen.

Meanwhile, three of the province’s local public-health districts, all in Eastern Ontario and with low case counts, will be allowed to move into the province’s lowest COVID-19 restriction level as of Wednesday.

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But Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, warned Monday that her city is “transitioning to a different phase and to a new pandemic altogether” with the arrival of new variants that she warns could send infections soaring and add thousands to the city’s death toll.

“We are in a position of great uncertainty with respect to variants, but what we know is alarming,” she told reporters at a city briefing. “I understand the value of preparing for the time we can lift restrictions. From a public-health perspective in Toronto, that time is not now.”

The province reopened much of its school system in Southern Ontario on Monday, with students in Toronto, York and Peel set to return next week. Quebec has already stepped down restrictions in parts of the province, while in Alberta, restaurants were allowed to reopen across the province as of Monday.

As he announced the changes, Mr. Ford cited concerns over the new variants and noted that some hospitals were still “under immense pressure,” while vaccine supplies remain delayed. But he said Ontario was “bending the curve” of the virus’s growth.

“This is a critical time,” Mr. Ford said. “We can find a way forward, but we need a plan that continues to protect the health and safety of each and every person in this province, while ensuring more businesses can safely reopen and getting more people back to work.”

One of the coronavirus variants is believed to be responsible for an alarming outbreak of at least 17 cases of COVID-19 in an apartment building in North Bay, a city that has, until now, reported relatively few coronavirus infections.

The North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit announced on Saturday that it was investigating a cluster of cases in which the people who tested positive had no connection other than living in the same apartment building.

Ontario’s overall state-of-emergency declaration expires on Tuesday, while the province is still urging residents to stay home and work from home if possible.

The reopening plans mean regions no longer under the stay-at-home order would be once again classified under the province’s colour-coded levels of pandemic restrictions, which allow for gradually looser rules as areas see falling case counts, test positivity rates and hospital admissions.

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A closed sign on a shop window in Blue Mountain, Ont., on Dec. 30, 2020.Ryan Carter/The Globe and Mail

But under new changes to these categories, even in the strictest “Grey/Lockdown” classification, non-essential retailers – previously ordered to offer only curbside pickup or delivery – will be allowed to open for in-person shopping, although with a limit of 25 per cent of a store’s capacity. This means non-essential shops even in hard-hit Toronto could reopen as early as Feb. 22. Other changes add new capacity limits for retailers in the second-strictest “red” level.

Lobbyists for the retail industry and small business have been pleading for changes to allow non-essential stores to reopen, complaining that rules unfairly favoured big-box stores that sold groceries as well as other items.

The Ontario Hospital Association urged the government to “err on the side of caution” when deciding whether to lift the stay-at-home orders, pointing to new, more contagious variants that still pose significant risks to the health care system.

“Returning to piecemeal, [public-health unit] by [public-health unit] decision-making will result only in Ontario losing the hard-fought gains we have made over the past several weeks,” said president and chief executive officer Anthony Dale.

Ontario’s reopening plans also include what it calls an “emergency brake.” The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, in consultation with local medical officers of health, will be able to order any region where infections are increasing immediately back into the “Grey/Lockdown” level. His decisions would still need approval from Mr. Ford’s cabinet.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak.

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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was concerned Mr. Ford was reopening too fast and potentially causing a “cycle of sickness and lockdowns.” She criticized him for being reluctant to spend money on sick pay for workers and other pandemic measures.

“The second wave didn’t have to be so devastating. But Doug Ford keeps choosing money over public health,” Ms. Horwath said in a statement.

On Wednesday, three areas will move into Ontario’s “green” category, which has the fewest COVID-19 rules: Hastings Prince Edward Public Health; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health; and Renfrew County and District Health Unit.

Residents in these areas will be allowed to dine in restaurants, shop, attend indoor fitness classes of up to 50 people, indoor weddings of 50 people, gamble in casinos and watch movies in cinemas, with COVID-19 measures in place.

Kieran Moore, medical officer of health for the Kingston-area region, said his community has virtually no transmission and it will remain that way as long as locals stay in the area.

“The only way we get this virus is if people travel here or our people go elsewhere,” Dr. Moore said. “That should be the main communication to the public: Stay local, support local, stay in your communities.”

Meanwhile, the province said ski hills will be allowed to reopen this week in the green zones, and in all regions next week except in Toronto, Peel and York, which cannot reopen until the stay-at-home order is lifted.

With a report from Kelly Grant

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