TORONTO — Ontario has unveiled a three-step reopening plan that will lift public health restrictions based on vaccination rates and other indicators starting in mid-June.
Before that plan kicks in, the province will reopen outdoor recreational amenities such as golf courses and tennis courts on Saturday, following heavy criticism from experts who said outdoor activities were important for physical and mental health.
Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that the province can start gradually loosening restrictions because COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining while vaccinations increase.
"This has to be done slowly and with extreme caution," he said. "That is the only way it will work."
The province is currently under a stay-at-home order that was imposed amid skyrocketing infections last month. The measure closed thousands of businesses, moved schools online and shut outdoor recreational facilities except playgrounds.
Ford said Ontario is expected to move into Step 1 of its reopening plan on the week of June 14, after 60 per cent of adults have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The premier's spokeswoman said 58.5 per cent of adults had so far received one shot.
"I know, above all, you want certainty right now," Ford said. "That's what this framework is designed to do ... I know that there might be some people who want to move faster, but we can't risk it right now."
Earlier Thursday the province's science advisers said maintaining some public health measures until mid-June and continuing progress with vaccinations would ensure Ontario has a "good summer."
Step 1 of the reopening plan will see some non-essential retail reopen with 15 per cent capacity limits, allow outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, and outdoor restaurant dining with four people at a table.
The second step will allow outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people and the resumption of personal care services where masks can be worn, as well as indoor religious services with capacity limits of 15 per cent.
The third step will further expand access to indoor settings with restrictions.
Throughout the plan, workplaces and public spaces will need to abide by public health guidelines around masking, physical distancing and capacity.
The province will remain in each stage for at least 21 days, only moving to the next stage if vaccine targets are met and health-system indicators remain positive.
To move to Step 2, 70 per cent of adults will need to have their first shot and 20 per cent need to be fully vaccinated. For the third step, the province said it wants 70 to 80 per cent with one dose and 25 per cent fully vaccinated.
The reopening of schools is not part of the strategy. Ford said there is currently no consensus on when schools should resume in-person learning.
That prompted a group of pediatric health-care providers and advisory groups, including the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, to call on the government to immediately reopen schools.
The groups said with cases falling, it was time to recognize the detrimental impact the pandemic has had on children and allow them to return to the classroom.
"Children and youth have suffered immeasurably over the course of the pandemic," they said. "It is time to prioritize their health and well-being."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the lack of a plan for schools was "shocking."
"It's shameful that the Doug Ford has left schools and kids out of the mix here," she said. "He's put them to the bottom of the list."
Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said earlier Thursday that reopening schools at the start of June could lead to a six to 11 per cent increase in cases but that "may be manageable."
The group painted a cautiously optimistic picture for the months ahead, but warned against loosening restrictions too soon.
"The direction of the pandemic has turned," said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the group. "If we're careful and cautious, we can maintain this momentum. And this momentum is what gets us to a good summer."
The group predicted that a mid-June reopening will see daily infections drop below 1,000 cases next month and continue to decline through the summer.
The advisers, who criticized the closure of outdoor recreational facilities, also said outdoor activities should be encouraged since they are safer than indoor gatherings.
They noted that residents need to avoid associated risks, such as carpooling with people outside of their household and going to crowded places.
They also said the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals was declining but the facilities are still under "incredible strain."
Ontario reported 2,400 new infections Thursday and 27 more deaths. The Ministry of Health said 1,320 people are in hospital — 721 are in intensive care and 493 are on a ventilator.
Meanwhile, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said his group was "deeply disappointed" there wasn't an immediate reopening for some businesses.
"Businesses deserve to know exactly when it’s their time to finally reopen to customers and plan for rehiring employees, cleaning and sanitizing the premises, acquiring inventory, and other reopening activities," Dan Kelly said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press