Ontario is easing COVID-19 capacity restrictions starting Thursday — and as of March 1, proof of vaccination will no longer be required, although indoor masking rules will stay in place for “a little bit longer,” says Premier Doug Ford.
Ford also gave the go-ahead Monday to booster shots for those aged 12 to 17.
“As I’ve said from the very beginning, the extraordinary measures that we introduced during this pandemic were always intended as a last resort,” Ford said at Queen’s Park, adding he promised Ontarians that “these tools would only be used for as long as they were absolutely necessary and not one day longer.
“The removal of these measures has always been our objective and something we have collectively worked towards for months now.”
Starting Thursday, social gatherings can increase to 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors, and capacity limits will be completely eliminated in restaurants, bars, gyms and other places requiring proof of vaccination.
Sports arenas will be allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity, as will concert venues and live theatres. Cinemas can operate at full capacity. Indoor capacity limits at nightclubs, restaurants with dancing, bathhouses and sex clubs will be 25 per cent.
Should COVID-19 and hospitalization numbers continue to decrease, the province will drop all capacity limits indoors and end the need for vaccination certificates at the beginning of March, although businesses can opt to keep them.
While the NDP accused Ford of pandering to protesters who have blockaded border crossings — and who are still encamped in Ottawa — the premier said loosening restrictions “is not because of what’s happening in Ottawa or Windsor, but despite it.”
Easing of restrictions and phasing out proof-of-vaccination certificates makes sense as infection levels decline, said Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of the science table advising Ford and chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore.
“That’s supported by the data,” Jüni told the Star in an interview.
Ontario has hit a point where the vaccination passport system either needed to be lifted or updated to include three doses of a vaccine and/or recent infection with COVID-19, he added.
Epidemiologist Todd Coleman of Wilfrid Laurier University said many Ontarians who have had only two doses received their second ones more than four months ago, rendering the two-dose passports less effective.
“They’re not a precise tool at this point to prevent infection,” he said.
Jüni suggested leaving the masking requirement in place “until the weather is really good. We shouldn’t pretend the pandemic’s over.”
During Monday’s announcement, Ford took a moment to speak of the division he’s seen over COVID-19 measures, and how it has affected his own family.
“All of it has polarized us in a way that we could have never imagined,” said Ford, whose daughter Krista Haynes has posted anti-vaccination and anti-mask sentiments on social media.
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“I’ve experienced this in my own family. It’s been one of the hardest things my family and I have ever gone through. But for all of this, I can still take comfort in knowing that there remains so much that unites us.”
Moore said masking rules could be relaxed down the road, depending on the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized and in intensive care, as well as the availability of PCR testing. He has previously said that if masking requirements are dropped, coverings would still be required on public transit and in schools.
Ford said while vaccination certificates may end, two doses will be required for visitors to long-term-care homes.
Ontario is “now down the slope from the peak of Omicron activity,” with 92 per cent of Ontarians over age 12 double-vaccinated and 6.7 million Ontarians triple-vaccinated, Moore said.
“We have the level of protection that we need to remove public health measures and have made terrific strides on reducing the risk,” he said. “Our health system is in much better position now.”
Proof of vaccination, he added, has “served its purpose … in our estimation, given where we are in the epidemic as of March 1, it will no longer be necessary.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business welcomed the news and said its recent survey data showed that 66 per cent of Ontario’s small businesses believe it’s time for proof-of-vaccination requirements to be eliminated. But that means about one third do not agree with scrapping vaccination passports.
“There’s no question that there are some business owners, including some that are in restaurants, the arts and entertainment, gyms, who feel like vaccine passports have value as a reassurance for customers,” said CFIB president Dan Kelly.
“We’ve been told for at least six months that mixing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations is dangerous, so it’s going to take some time for people to get their heads around (dropping the requirement),” he said.
In Windsor, where police cleared protesters blocking the Ambassador Bridge over the weekend, New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath accused Ford of catering to protesters with the easing of restrictions.
“I think it’s always very dangerous to cave in to people who are breaking the law,” she said, raising concerns that the vaccination certificate program is being lifted too soon and missing an opportunity to require third doses for it.
“I suspect this is all about the election in June.”
Coleman, who is also a former public health official in London, said the reliance on hospitalization statistics, which are a lagging indicator of infection, and the lack of widespread PCR testing for the general population make this “the most difficult time in the pandemic” for Ontarians to gauge their personal risk level as restrictions ease.
“There’s still relatively high levels of virus circulating,” he said. “I would still be cautious.”
With files from Christine Dobby
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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