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Ontario's restaurant industry has been up in arms since the Ontario government allowed many businesses to operate at full capacity while leaving restrictions on restaurants, bars and gyms in place.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Ontario restaurants will have to wait up to another two weeks before their pandemic capacity limits are lifted, the province’s top doctor says, adding that a long-range plan to be unveiled next week would also outline the eventual phasing-out of vaccine-passport requirements.

The province’s restaurant industry has been up in arms after the Ontario government suddenly allowed large concert halls, theatres and sports arenas – including the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors, to operate at full capacity late last week, while leaving restrictions on restaurants, bars and gyms in place.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said he was still developing a “slow and steady” plan to further ease Ontario’s restrictions over the next three to six months, and that he would send his recommendations and evidence to the province next week. He said the government makes the final decisions.

While Dr. Moore said Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers remained on the right trajectory, he said he needed to see the data on any spread resulting from Thanksgiving weekend gatherings and that it could be seven to 14 days before he recommends that any capacity limits on restaurants or other businesses are lifted.

“Bear with us,” Dr. Moore said. “We will continue to monitor the data. And hopefully we’ll make recommendations to government for further opening of our economy.”

Dr. Moore also said the long-term pandemic plan expected next week will include the possibility of phasing out the province’s proof-of-vaccination rules for certain settings, depending on vaccination rates and infection numbers. He said vaccine certificates would likely remain required for mass gatherings.

Any phase-out would not likely occur until after the winter holidays, he said, adding, “If we continue to make great progress on our immunization strategy, I could see us eliminating these public-health measures sooner.”

Premier Doug Ford is set to unveil more information on Friday about the province’s efforts to develop a vaccine-certification app. Called Verify Ontario, it has already quietly been made available for download in smartphone app stores. The province says businesses will be able to use the app to scan QR-code-enabled vaccine certificates – yet to be launched – in a system expected to be up and running by Oct. 22. (Since Ontario’s proof-of-vaccine rules came into effect on Sept. 22, residents have used paper or digital copies of their vaccine receipts to enter restaurants, sports venues and other businesses deemed higher-risk.)

Restaurateurs said a potential two-week wait for any easing of their pandemic restrictions was unfair.

John Sinopoli, owner of Toronto’s Ascari Hospitality Group and the founder of advocacy group SaveHospitality.ca, said many are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy with patio season about to end with the onset of colder weather. He accused the Ford government of favouring large corporations like Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the owner of the Leafs and Raptors, while ignoring small businesses.

“It’s complete nonsense,” Mr. Sinopoli said, arguing that eating in restaurants was less of a risk than spending hours surrounded by shouting and often maskless fans. “We’re paying the economic price. They don’t care about small business.”

The current pandemic rules for restaurants, which require customers to be seated at least two metres apart, mean indoor dining can only operate at 50 per cent capacity or less, in a business with tight profit margins. Mr. Sinopoli and other restaurateurs have complained that the government has not shown them the rationale for treating them differently – including at a heated virtual meeting this week with industry leaders at which Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod was a no-show.

Dr. Moore told reporters Thursday that the decision to lift restrictions for large venues was “data-driven,” as these settings had not been sources of spread so far. He said having nearly 20,000 people in one location, such as the Scotiabank Arena, with “good ventilation, known air exchanges” was different than having the same 20,000 people “spread across multiple different establishments.”

He also said a report by Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table examining international data from previous waves of the virus had identified restaurants as “high-risk venues,” although this was before immunization was widespread. Dr. Moore added that even with vaccine requirements, attending Leafs games or other large events was a risk that he did not recommend for people with health problems, given that not all attendees may follow masking requirements and other rules.

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