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Minister Merrilee Fullerton answers questions at Queen’s Park in Toronto in May.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

After months of some of the strictest visitation rules in the province, Ontario has loosened guidelines for group homes.

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) said Thursday that scheduled indoor and outdoor non-essential visits at group homes will now be permitted, in alignment with the province’s gathering limits. Recreational outings, such as same-day visits to a friend’s house, will also be permitted. Overnight visits will be allowed for all residents, and if they are fully vaccinated, they no longer need to provide a negative COVID-19 test afterward. The new guidelines go into effect Friday as part of Ontario’s Step 3 reopening.

“As we cautiously reopen the province, we know how important it is for people in congregate care settings to spend time with their loved ones outside of care settings, where they can share activities and special moments together,” said Merrilee Fullerton, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, in a news release.

Families have endured months of limited contact with their loved ones in group homes. Although essential visits have technically been allowed during the pandemic, many group homes don’t consider family members to be essential visitors, so families were often forced to rely on video calls or just waving at each other through windows.

Mona Taylor’s son, Daniel Zaretsky, lives in a group home in Vaughan for people with developmental disabilities. She’s been able to visit with him outside for the past couple of months, but she’s been longing to bring him home for a visit.

“I was setting a place for him for dinner on Sunday, and it was up to the ministry whether he was going to come home or not,” Ms. Taylor said.

Aptus Treatment Centre, which runs Mr. Zaretsky’s group home, sent families new guidelines Friday based on the ministry’s changes. Aptus now allows indoor home visits provided families follow COVID-19 safety protocols. President and CEO Ursula Rehdner said in an e-mail that Aptus is “really happy” to see the ministry loosening restrictions so families can reunite.

But some families have been frustrated by what they see as a delay in the reopening of the facilities. Pamela Libralesso, a co-founder of Ontario Families of Group Home Residents, said it felt like “this sector is just an afterthought,” considering that restrictions at long-term care homes were eased weeks ago.

Ms. Libralesso is also disappointed that the ministry has not issued new guidance on who qualifies as an essential visitor. The ministry says an essential visitor maintains the wellness and legal rights of a resident and may include a parent or guardian, social service worker or health care provider, but many group homes say family members typically don’t meet the requirement. Although restrictions are easing now, Ms. Libralesso is concerned that families could lose access to their loved ones again if there’s a fourth wave of the pandemic.

“It’s very tenuous,” she said. “We had this same access last summer, and then it was taken away. So these residents are going through this traumatic experience repeatedly.”

Ms. Taylor said the outdoor visits at her son’s group home have helped her start to rebuild trust with him. If another lockdown were to restrict her access to him, she worries it would further damage their relationship.

Still, she said the announcement was a long time coming – and she’s looking forward to bringing her son home this weekend.

“We’re just happy and hopeful right now.”

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