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Ontario will allow restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other indoor settings to reopen at 50 per cent capacity as of Jan. 31 as part of a wider plan to gradually lift most COVID-19 restrictions by mid-March.
On Thursday, Premier Doug Ford announced that the province will gradually lift current public health measures that were implemented to slow transmission of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
“We're taking a phased approach, with 21 days between each step to make sure we haven't moved too fast,” Ford said during an announcement at Queen’s Park.
As of Jan. 31, capacity limits will increase or be maintained at 50 per cent in indoor settings, including restaurants, bars, malls, non-spectator areas of sports and recreational fitness facilities, museums, cinemas, casinos and religious services.
In addition, restaurants and bars will once again be able to serve liquor after 10 p.m. as that is the current cut-off time for alcohol sales.
Spectator areas of sporting events, concerts and live theatres will be allowed to operate at 50 per cent seated capacity or 500 people, whichever is less.
Enhanced proof of vaccination with QR codes will continue to apply in these settings.
Private, social gathering limits will also increase to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
Less than a month later, as of Feb 21, the measures will be lifted again by removing all capacity limits in indoor public settings where proof of vaccination is required, including restaurants, sports and recreational facilities and cinemas. Sporting events, concert venues and theatres will also be allowed to have 50 per cent capacity regardless of the venue size.
At this time, indoor religious services and ceremonies will be limited to the number of people that can maintain two metres of physical distance, with no limit if proof of vaccination is required.
And lastly, as of March 14, Ontario will lift virtually all remaining public health restrictions in all indoor settings and increase social gathering limits to 50 people indoors and no limits for outdoor gatherings.
As of Jan. 5, the government reverted to a modified Step 2 in response to higher case counts and hospitalizations, resulting in the closure of indoor dining, gyms, cinemas and 50 per cent capacity limits in retail settings. The current restrictions were set to last until Jan. 26.
Ford says 21 days in between the reopening steps will allow officials to cautiously watch trends and for the government to slow down steps if indicators show worsening signs.
“Now we want to be absolutely sure these positive trends continue as we move forward. And we want to do everything humanly possible to avoid having to go backwards. If that means pausing between steps for a few extra days, we won't hesitate to do so,” he said.
However, infectious diseases specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti believes the plan “is too slow.”
“I think that when you look at the health aspects, this will get better and we've seen that in other countries. I think that we just need to kind of step back and realize that we can't be locking down every single time cases go up, and I'm glad to see that there's a reopening plan, albeit slow,” he told CP24 Thursday afternoon.
For UHN infectious diseases specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, it is too soon to ease COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario. He said schools have recently reopened to in-person learning, and hospitalizations and ICU admissions have just started plateauing.
"I think that it may be a little bit premature to suggest that we are out of the woods," Sharkawy said.
"I certainly have a whole lot more confidence that the dire situation of triage is something that we have avoided. But that doesn't mean that everything is fine in the healthcare system that is still incredibly depleted in terms of human resources."
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the government decided to reopen the economy based on positive indicators that transmission of the virus is slowly easing.
“The percentage of tests that are positive is on the decline at 15 per cent, so that is one indicator we're following very closely, as well the ability to care for Ontarians in the intensive care unit setting as well as in the hospital,” he said.
The government did not provide a date for when non-urgent surgeries will resume after they were paused earlier this month to assist the overwhelmed health-care system.
“We don't expect the peak of the admissions to ICU to happen until mid-February or second week of February,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said. “So as soon as we can see that the numbers are going down both in terms of admissions to hospital and in terms of intensive care admissions, then we'll be able to get back on track with those surgeries and procedures.”
As of Thursday, there were 4,061 patients with COVID-19 in Ontario hospitals, including 594 patients in the ICU.
The reopening plan is positive news for GoodLife Fitness who told CP24 it is ready to reopen its gyms at the end of the month.
“GoodLife is ready and looks forward to safely reopening our clubs on January 31. We will be sharing specific details with our members very soon via email about their return to the gym, and we look forward to seeing everyone for their next workout,” Chief Operating Officer Jason Sheridan, said in a statement.
As indoor settings start to reopen, Ford is encouraging residents to support local businesses who have been struggling for the past two years.
“Folks, we get back out there and I encourage you to go in and support your local business, go out to the restaurant, even at the 50 per cent. Please take a night out at least once a week and go to your local restaurant and support them, either takeout or or you're able to sit inside.”