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A restaurant in Toronto displays a "Take Out Only" sign on March 18, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is making it easier for bars and restaurants to expand their patio spaces once they are allowed to reopen safely after being shuttered as a result of COVID-19.

Starting Monday, the province is loosening rules to allow for patios to be expanded onto sidewalks, parking lots or even streets, as long as it is approved by municipalities. Currently, bars and restaurants are closed and can only sell takeout food as well as alcoholic beverages. There is still no date as to when they can reopen.

“We have to find ways to help this industry. They’re having a hard time through the COVID outbreak," Attorney-General Doug Downey said in an interview.

“What [this] means is allowing them to expand into public spaces without more red tape and cost.”

Mr. Downey said that under the current system, any business that wants to expand its patio can apply to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario for a 14-day permit, which can only be renewed four times. The new changes apply automatically to all licensees at no extra cost, and the permit will be in effect until Jan. 1. The changes also require meeting certain criteria, such as the physical extension being adjacent to the premises, and also remove some requirements for barriers on patios, as well as ensuring patio capacity does not exceed 1.11 square metres a person.

Mr. Downey said his goal is to give the hospitality industry notice so they can expand as soon as restrictions are lifted.

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“We’re moving in that direction, as long as numbers and the chief medical officer of health and [the province’s health experts] say that we can. So there’s always that caveat on the ‘when,'" he said.

When will depend on Ontario’s case numbers, which according to the government’s framework need to decline for at least two weeks in order to move to the next stage of reopening. Ontario entered its first stage, which allowed for some recreational activities, boating and golf courses to open, almost a month ago.

The City of Toronto has also revealed a plan called CaféTO to help restaurants and bars expand once they are allowed to reopen.

Premier Doug Ford, who has said he is now looking at taking a regional approach to reopening, said Friday that Ontario will be ready “very soon” to take the next steps in restarting the economy. He said the government will announce details of the Stage 2 reopening plan this week, but cautioned it will not begin immediately.

Infectious-disease physicians, however, say Ontario will have to dramatically improve advice for the public to ensure people understand what’s expected of them and how to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission as society reopens. Messages coming from provincial health officials are confusing and unclear, said Lucas Castellani, an infectious-diseases physician in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“It’s chaotic communication,” Dr. Castellani said. “The communication is not standardized in a way that makes it easy for people to consume and that makes it very hard to follow."

Andrew Morris, an infectious-disease specialist at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto, said it’s unrealistic for health officials to expect people to “endlessly” adhere to guidance to stay home and avoid others.

He added that Ontario’s transition to its second stage of reopening will hinge on its ability to track and trace new cases and adapt as needed.

“It totally depends on what our surveillance is like and how good we are at being able to detect changes and trends and being able to shut things down if necessary,” Dr. Morris said.

A regional approach to reopening makes sense for areas such as Sault Ste. Marie, which hasn’t identified a new COVID-19 case in more than two weeks, Dr. Castellani said. But he said it wouldn’t take much to see a new cluster of cases.

“It only takes one person,” Dr. Castellani said.

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