Toronto residents to stay at home another two weeks to fight COVID-19

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FILE PHOTO: Students arrive for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's most populous province of Ontario said on Monday that it would extend a stay-at-home order in Toronto and nearby suburbs by two weeks, but residents of three largely rural public health regions can leave their homes starting on Wednesday.

The stay-at-home orders in the remaining 28 regions will end Feb. 16. The order for Toronto, Canada's financial capital, and nearby suburban regions Peel and York will end Feb. 22.

"We can't return to normal - not yet, not while our hospitals could still be overwhelmed. But we can transition out of the province-wide shutdown," said Premier Doug Ford.

While new COVID-19 cases have dropped steadily in recent weeks, new more contagious variants could threaten progress, Ford said. While new cases of the virus are falling across the province, they still high in Toronto, where overwhelmed public health workers had to suspend routine contact tracing in October.

Ontario, a manufacturing center and Canada's economic engine, imposed a state of emergency last month after COVID-19 cases spiked, but a near four-week stay at home has helped contain the virus. (Graphic:

Last week, Ontario announced most of schools in the province will return to in-person classes by Feb. 16.

On Monday, the province also announced a change to its color-coded system of COVID-19 restrictions.

For the grey "lockdown" category, stores that had been deemed non-essential and limited to curbside pickup can now reopen at 25% of capacity.

In addition, the province will lift its official state of emergency starting Wednesday.

(Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)