Premier Doug Ford’s government will announce its new plan for lifting more of Ontario’s COVID-19 public health restrictions next week, CBC News has learned.
The easing of pandemic measures will include ending capacity limits in all locations where proof-of-vaccination requirements are in place, such as restaurants, bars and gyms, a senior official in Ford’s government said Wednesday.
The official provided information about the government’s plans on condition of anonymity. CBC News agreed not to name the official in order to inform the public in advance of the announcement.
Ontario has been at Step 3 of what the government calls its “Roadmap to Reopen” since mid-July. The official said it’s now time to unveil a “revised pandemic plan” that takes into account the province’s success in getting the population vaccinated against COVID-19, while also keeping a lid on the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
“We owe people a clear plan to exit the roadmap,” the official said in an interview. “The work began months ago, we are finalizing the plan now and we expect to release it late next week.”
The Ontario government will not lift all public health measures and “pretend the pandemic is over,” said the official, noting that indoor-masking requirements will remain in place.
However, the plan will signal when physical distancing and capacity limits can be lifted in settings where proof of vaccination is not required, such as places of worship, the official said.
The plan will also indicate conditions that would prompt the government to reimpose restrictions, on a targeted and local basis, should any significant spike in new infections emerge.
The official declined to state which day next week the plan will be announced, nor to give a specific date of when the relaxed measures will take effect. The government has previously said Ontario’s digital proof-of-vaccination app will launch on Oct. 22, which is Friday of next week.
News that more restrictions will be lifted comes as Ontario is seeing an average of 500 new cases of COVID-19 daily. That seven-day average figure has trended steadily downward since Sept. 5, despite the resumption of school for the province’s two million elementary and secondary students.
The fact that in-person classes returned without producing a spike in the province’s overall number of cases is one key reason why the government believes the time is right for exiting Step 3 of the roadmap, the official said.
Other key factors are the province’s vaccination rate and little evidence of virus transmission at locations where Ontario’s vaccine-passport system has been in place since Sept. 22.
The latest provincial figures show 83 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and up are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and another five per cent have received one dose of a vaccine.
“We’ve watched and learned lessons from other provinces that moved too quickly to open up,” the official said. “We’re going to continue to be cautious.”
However, the official acknowledges it “was a mistake” for the government to announce the lifting of capacity limits for spectator sports venues, cinemas and theatres, without announcing its plan for restaurants, bars and gyms. That news came late on the Friday afternoon before the long weekend.
The move benefited Ontario’s NHL teams by giving the Toronto Maple Leafs the chance to play their home opener before capacity crowds on Wednesday night, and the Ottawa Senators able to play theirs on Thursday.
But it left restaurant owners seething.
Members of the Ford government and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore had previously indicated that the main goal for Ontario is to avoid further lockdowns, and that any future tightening of measures would be tailored toward reining in local outbreaks, with the aim of minimizing disruption to people’s lives.
The new plan will include guidance about travel and more specifics about when the province will transition the proof-of-vaccination program from mandatory to voluntary, said the official. “Ontarians will have a better idea of what they can expect in the months ahead as we continue to confront COVID-19,” the official added.
The current description of Ontario’s reopening plan on the province’s website indicates that “the majority of public health measures in effect under Step 3 will be lifted” when Ontario moves to the next phase of its pandemic response.
The website says that would include removing capacity limits in all sectors and removing requirements for active screening of patrons and workers.
COVID-19 is linked to the deaths of more than 9,800 people in Ontario since March 2020.