Ontario to begin gradual reopening of economy Wednesday, state of emergency to expire
By Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
By Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Ontario will begin to gradually reopen its economy on Wednesday but the government could use an “emergency brake” to move regions back into lockdown if cases spike.
Premier Doug Ford said Monday that a state of emergency will be allowed to expire as scheduled on Tuesday and regions will transition back to the province’s colour-coded pandemic restrictions system over the next three weeks.
A stay-at-home order will remain in place for communities until they move over to the tiered system.
“We can’t return to normal, not yet,” Ford said. “But we can transition out of the province-wide shut-down.”
As part of its reopening efforts, the province is changing the rules for the strictest category of the restrictions system to allow previously closed retailers to reopen with capacity limits of 25 per cent.
“To those business owners who are struggling, I want you to know that we have listened,” Ford said. “We’ve been working day and night to find every possible way to safely allow more businesses to reopen.”
Three health units — Hastings Prince Edward; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington; and Renfrew County — will move into the least-restrictive green category on Wednesday, which means restaurants and non-essential businesses can reopen.
The Timiskaming Health Unit, which was also expected to move to the green category Wednesday, will be held back for a week since a COVID-19 variant was discovered in the region over the weekend, the province said.
On Feb. 16, all remaining regions except three hot spots in the Greater Toronto Area are set to move to the restrictions framework. The category they are placed in will depend on their local case rates.
Toronto, Peel Region and York Region are expected to be the last to make the transition on Feb. 22, but the province said any sudden increase in cases could delay that plan.
The province will also have an “emergency brake” in place to allow the government to quickly move a region back into lockdown if it experiences a rapid increase in cases or if its health-system becomes overwhelmed.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the measure is meant to help deal with the risk posed by new variants of COVID-19.
“This is not a reopening, or a return to normal,” she said of the changes announced Monday. “It’s an acknowledgement that we are making steady progress.”
A provincial lockdown was imposed in late December and was followed by the state of emergency and a stay-at-home order that took effect Jan. 14 as COVID-19 rates surged.
While cases have since declined, public health officials have said the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19 are a concern.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, has said he would like to see daily cases drop below 1,000 and the number of patients with COVID-19 in hospital intensive care units below 150 before lifting restrictions.
On Monday, Williams urged residents to remain cautious and follow public health rules.
“That number is not down yet where we need it to be to step back from the brink,” he said of the province’s cases. “Some ICUs are still having challenges and moving people.”
Ontario reported 1,265 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and 33 new deaths due to the virus.
In total, 901 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 335 in intensive care, and 226 people are on ventilators.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business which had recently asked that all businesses be allowed to open across Ontario with a 20 per cent capacity limit, called Monday’s announcement a “small, positive step”.
But the group noted that even by Feb. 22, a number of regions are likely to remain in the strictest grey-lockdown category of the province’s restriction system.
“This is deeply unfair and will mean that in-person dining, personal services like hair and nail care, and gyms will remain in full lockdown with no end in sight,” the group said in a statement.