Personal care services across Ontario will be permitted to reopen next month in regions in the province's grey-level lockdown zones, but two regions will see tighter restrictions starting next Monday, the province announced Friday.
As of April 12, services in grey-lockdown zones including, but not limited to: hair and nail salons, barber shops and body art establishments will be allowed to open at limited capacity by appointment only.
Also Friday, the province said Hamilton will be moving into the grey-level lockdown zone, while the Eastern Ontario Health Unit will move into the red "control" zone as of 12:01 a.m. on Monday. The announcement comes the same day that Timiskaming moved into the red level of the framework at the request of the region's health unit in order to minimize the increasing spread of the virus.
"Over the last week, we have continued to see some concerning trends in key health indicators in regions across the province," said Minister of Health Christine Elliott in a statement.
At a news conference on Friday, Premier Doug Ford said the government's decision to loosen restrictions isn't "mixed messaging," but rather to allow people to do more outside. The changes come for indoor businesses as well.
"Do not let your guard down, follow the protocols," Ford said. "We should all be on high alert."
The changes to restrictions for some businesses come one day after 10,000 personal care service workers called on the provincial government to reopen the "decimated" industry.
The government also announced that outdoor fitness classes and outdoor training for team and individual sports will be permitted in the grey-level lockdown zones effective Monday at 12:01 a.m.
A maximum of 10 people will be allowed to participate in these activities and must also follow public health recommendations.
The province is also modifying outdoor capacity limits for weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites or ceremonies held in regions in all levels of the framework.
As of Monday, capacity limits for these services will be adjusted so more people can gather so long as they can maintain two metres of physical distance.
This change does not apply to social gatherings associated with these services such as receptions.
The government also announced modifications to its "emergency brake," which would allow the province's top doctor to advise an immediate shutdown of most in-person services and retail if COVID-19 is threatening to overwhelm a region.
Ford took questions from former Conservative candidate
CBC Toronto was not given the opportunity to ask the premier a question about the worsening pandemic at the news conference.
However, Ford took the following question from Jagdish Grewal, a former federal PC candidate who now runs the Canadian Punjabi Post, about funding for a future hospital expansion: "Premier, it's no secret that Brampton has been neglected by the previous government and as a result Brampton has been left without the resources needed to deal with this pandemic. While previous governments have forgotten us, premier, you, minister [Prabmeet] Sakaria and MPP [Amarjot] Sandhu, have finally delivered hope to Bramptonians. My question is simple: What has pushed your government to finally make Brampton a priority?"
When asked why that happened, Ivana Yelich, the premier's spokesperson, said Grewal's publication has a significant audience (the Post delivers 18,000 copies per day, according to its LinkedIn profile) in the region where the news conference was held.
"Do you not believe the Premier should take questions from multicultural media?" Yelich said in an email.
"We do and we will continue to do so moving forward."
The NDP also noticed the question posed by Grewal, prompting them to issue a statement calling Ford's comments "hyper-partisan campaigning" and saying that it crossed the line.
"These weren't even cleverly disguised planted questions," said the NDP's ethics and accountability critic Taras Natyshak in the statement.
"Doug Ford is up to his old tricks again — controlling press conferences, and demanding applause and praise on command."
The official Opposition attached pictures of Premier Ford and Grewal appearing together at a barbecue event in 2019.
Colin D'Mello, a reporter with CTV News and the head of the Queen's Park press gallery, also criticized how the premier's office dealt with Friday's news conference.
"It's one thing to use a news conference to echo your budget. It's another thing entirely to pick a journalist to ask you a question — when that journalist has run for the Conservative party in the past," D'Mello tweeted.
"While we always welcome a diversity of voices and media outlets being involved in news conferences, today demonstrated an abuse of that process by the premier's office."
ICU admissions soar
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 2,169 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, as a government agency that tracks hospitalizations said admissions to intensive care have climbed to 401 after weeks of an uneven but steady rise.
Critical Care Services Ontario (CCSO) puts together a daily internal report on various aspects of care for hospitals and health organizations. According to the agency, admissions of COVID-19 patients to ICUs peaked at 420 in mid-January, during the second wave of the illness.
"Every day the situation grows more serious," said Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association, in a tweet highlighting the latest data.
You may notice that CCSO's figure for ICU admissions differs considerably from the number reported by the Ministry of Health, currently 332. That is due to differences in how each body does its count.
In the case of the ministry, patients are removed from the count after two weeks of care in hospital, regardless of whether or not they continue to occupy a bed. That is why CCSO's data is considered more accurate and is therefore used for planning by hospital officials.
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, said yesterday that virus variants of concern are driving up case counts and admissions to hospitals and critical care.
"Daily cases are increasing, hospitalizations are increasing and ICU admissions are increasing," Yaffe told media. "As [variants] take over to be the predominant strains, the concern is that the infection rate will increase."
The Ministry of Health said in today's report that another 1,023 test samples that tested positive for COVID-19 also screened positive for a particular mutation that suggests the presence of a variant of concern.
A total of 16,680 samples have now screened positive for the mutation in the province. Some of those samples will then go for whole genomic sequencing, an intensive laboratory process that can pinpoint which variant of concern caused the case.
According to Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, variants currently account for about 55 per cent of all new infections in the province.
Elliott said the government is carefully watching the data in hospitals and says it does not have to resort to triaging patients.
"We have built over 3,100 new beds since the pandemic started, which is the equivalent of six community-sized hospitals," she said.
She said this means the province is prepared to deal with further increases in ICU patients.
CBC News reported this morning that the table plans to release a new analysis that found that variants double the risk of someone being admitted to intensive care, relative to the dominant strains that were circulating earlier in the pandemic.
The variants also increase the risk of dying from the illness, the science table says. The group of infectious disease experts advises the Ontario government on its pandemic response.
Physicians, especially those working in the Greater Toronto Area and surrounding regions, report that the age distribution of patients admitted to hospitals is continuing to skew younger. Those younger patients also seem to have more severe forms of COVID-19 than compared with similarly aged people earlier in the pandemic, doctors say.
The trend is also partly being driven by ongoing vaccinations for the province's most elderly residents. The Ministry of Health said that health units administered 82,996 doses of vaccines yesterday, a third consecutive record high for a single day. A total of 306,373 people have received both shots of a vaccine.
7-day average of daily cases rises sharply
Meanwhile, the new cases reported today include 682 in Toronto, 397 in Peel Region, 254 in York Region, 129 in Ottawa, 123 in Durham and 122 in Hamilton.
In a release, the province said that Timiskaming's case rate has increased from 3.1 to 24.5 cases per 100,000 people, an increase of 700 per cent, with more cases expected in the coming days.
Hamilton's case rate increased by 37.6 per cent, to 109.4 cases per 100,000 people in the span of one week, the province said. The positivity rate in the region is 4.6 per cent for this past week, above the high-alert threshold of 2.5 per cent.
The total new cases in today's update come as labs completed 53,436 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity of 3.8 per cent.
The seven-day average of daily cases provincewide rose to 1,855, marking 11 straight days of increases.
The Ministry of Education also reported an additional 167 school-related cases: 138 students and 29 staff members. Forty-four, or about 0.91 per cent of Ontario's publicly-funded schools, are closed due to the illness.
Public health units recorded the deaths of 12 more people with COVID-19, bringing the official toll to 7,292. As more older residents have been vaccinated, the seven-day average of deaths has fallen significantly from its second-wave peak of more than 60 down to just more than 10 today.