TORONTO — Pandemic restrictions will loosen in 27 Ontario health units next week as the province moves ahead with a reopening plan criticized in light of projections showing a likely third wave of COVID-19 in the near future without strict protections in place.
The province announced Friday what restrictions would take effect in public health units leaving the provincewide stay-at-home order on Feb. 16.
Niagara Region will be the only region in the grey-lockdown zone, which allows businesses to open at 25 per cent capacity.
The rest of the regions, most of them outside the Greater Toronto Area, fall elsewhere along the scale that moves from red - the second-most strict level behind the grey - through green, with lighter restrictions on businesses and gatherings at each stage.
The reopening plan is going ahead next week against the backdrop of stark scientific modelling presented Thursday that predicted a "third wave" of infections and another lockdown could be prevented with a continuing stay-at-home order.
The pandemic science advisory group said a lockdown imposed on Boxing Day and stay-at-home order issued last month have lowered infections, hospitalizations and positivity rates in Ontario.
But more contagious variants of the virus are spreading and will likely cause infections to spike later this month, the group said, making stay-home measures important to reigning in spread.
When asked whether the reopening should be paused in light of the projections, Premier Doug Ford said people should still avoid travelling and stay home when possible to keep infections low.
"We're doing a little bit of a balance and letting small businesses open up very, very cautiously," he said.
"It's really up to the great people of Ontario that have done a great job so far."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the Progressive Conservative government's decision to lift restrictions “unconscionable.”
“It is still possible to save ourselves from another devastating round of illnesses, deaths, closures and lockdowns,” she said in a statement. “But Doug Ford needs to avoid repeating his mistakes of opening up too fast."
Ontario Hospital Association CEO Anthony Dale called the decision to reopen "shocking and confusing." In a series of tweets posted Friday, he said the move is a "huge gamble" given the science table's projections.
"The warning could not have been clearer. An exhausted, overextended hospital sector is likely going to have to deal with a (third) pandemic wave," Dale wrote.
"Ultimately the consequences of, and responsibility for, today’s decision to reopen on Feb. 16 rests with the Government of Ontario."
On Tuesday, Chatham-Kent Hamilton; Halton Region; Durham Region; Middlesex-London; Region of Waterloo; Simcoe-Muskoka; Thunder Bay District; Wellington-Dufferin Guelph; Windsor-Essex and Southwestern health units will be in the red level.
That level allows indoor dining to a limit of 10 people indoors and gatherings of five people indoors and 25 outdoors.
Brant County; Eastern Ontario; Haldimand-Norfolk; Huron Perth; Lambton; Ottawa; Sudbury; Porcupine and Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health units will be in the orange level.
Algoma; Grey Bruce; Northwestern and Peterborough health units will be in the yellow level, while Leeds; Grenville and Lanark District and Timiskaming health units will be in the least-restrictive green category.
At that level, social gatherings of 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors are permitted. Organized events can have up to 50 people indoors with distancing measures in place, and religious services can take place at 30 per cent room capacity.
Three health units -- Hastings Prince Edward; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington; and Renfrew County -- returned to the green zone of the framework on Wednesday. Local health officials urged continued vigilance and asked visitors from other areas to stay away as health restrictions loosened.
Regions will stay at one level of restrictions for two weeks before the government will assess the impact of current measures.
The province has said it will use an "emergency brake" measure to move regions back into lockdown quickly if necessary.
Toronto; Peel Region; York Region and North Bay Parry Sound are set to remain under the stay-at-home order until at least Feb. 22.
The health unit covering North Bay was set to enter the colour-coded framework on Feb. 16, but the date was pushed back at the request of the region's top doctor after a steep rise in cases.
Preliminary results suggest at least 18 people at a North Bay, Ont., apartment building have been infected with a new, more infectious variant of the virus.
Amid fears from health officials that the new variants could drive an especially dire third wave -- as has been seen across the world where the variants have taken hold -- the provincial government announced it would expand use of rapid virus testing.
Health officials said Friday that use of the rapid tests will be ramped up in Ontario schools, long-term care homes and essential workplaces in the coming weeks.
Students in all health units will return to in-person classes next week after starting the school year with remote learning in a bid to limit COVID-19 spread.
Health officials expect to distribute one million tests weekly once the program ramps up.
- With files from Shawn Jeffords
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press