Finally, a reason to look forward to Monday.
Restaurants, bars and fitness centres can begin welcoming more customers starting Monday under a long-awaited easing of Ontario’s COVID-19 capacity limits, the Star has learned.
The moves are part of a “comprehensive” road map to be laid out Friday by Premier Doug Ford and chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore for the next phase of the province’s pandemic reopening plan, sources said.
Bolstered by the lack of a post-Thanksgiving spike in new cases, the liberalization follows a steady easing of restrictions in recent months and will be announced as a new system of smartphone QR codes for proof of vaccination at non-essential venues takes effect Friday.
Senior government officials, speaking confidentially to discuss internal deliberations, said Ford’s cabinet approved the changes at a meeting Thursday after input from Moore and other health experts.
“Some limits start lifting next week. Restaurants and gyms,” confided a senior official.
Another said some prohibitions will be lifted gradually to gauge their impact. Gyms, for example, have been limited to 50 per cent capacity since they were allowed to reopen in July and restaurants have also been restricted since indoor dining resumed.
As part of the plan, Moore has promised “dates and timelines and data by which we anticipate further reopening of the economy in a staged, phased and cautious approach” while Ford has counselled patience as health officials continue to watch key pandemic indicators closely.
“I’m not going to rush it because anything you do in this pandemic, you rush it, it can come back and backfire on you,” the premier cautioned a week ago.
Clarity and detailed thresholds for case levels, intensive care unit admissions and other benchmarks are what the business community has been asking for — particularly since capacity restrictions in venues like pro sports arenas, concert halls and movie theatres were suddenly lifted on Thanksgiving weekend, while limits remained in place for places like restaurants and fitness centres.
“That is still rubbing business owners the wrong way,” Ryan Mallough of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Thursday afternoon as a host of reopening proposals went to Ford’s cabinet for discussion.
“If Scotiabank Arena can be open at 100 per cent capacity, why not a restaurant?”
James Rilett of Restaurants Canada said the government has not adequately answered that question, and that has harmed the industry as it tries to recover from months of indoor dining shutdowns.
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“We need the government and the chief medical officer to offer messages that restaurants are a safe place to go out and eat, because their messaging the last two weeks has been problematic for the industry,” Rilett told the Star.
“We really want the distancing requirements taken off.”
Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the science table of volunteers advising Ford, told the Star’s May Warren this week that studies have shown outbreaks have resulted from people taking their masks off — to dine, for example — in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
Whatever the reason for holding restaurants and other venues back from any full reopening, the government needs to make the details clear and provide guidance on how the problems can be overcome — perhaps with aid money for improved ventilation, said Mallough.
“Ultimately, what we want to see is a level playing field,” he said.
“I echo the restaurateurs’ cries on how you can eat a hog dog and drink a beer shoulder-to-shoulder with someone at a sporting event but you can’t do it across from a table from someone at a restaurant?”
With colder weather coming after an unusually mild start to fall, medical experts warn caution is the watchword. They say the risk of increased spread of COVID-19 remains as more people gather indoors and the highly contagious Delta variant continues to circulate despite slowly increasing vaccination rates.
The province reported 413 new cases of the virus and four deaths on Thursday. The seven-day average of infections has dropped to 406, its lowest point since early August. Intensive care unit admissions are also stable and vaccination levels have increased, with almost 84 per cent of Ontarians over age 12 fully vaccinated.
“Wonderful to see Ontario doing so well at keeping COVID-19 rates low. This is probably due to a slow & methodical reopening plan coupled with maintaining public health measures,” infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch wrote Thursday on Twitter.
But he added, “It’s still way too soon for the ‘mission accomplished’ banner.”
That’s why the province must be ready to reinstate restrictions if trends head in the wrong direction like they did last winter, when it took a spring lockdown to halt a third wave, said Bogoch.
“Been there, done that. Pandemic is not over (yet).”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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