Ontario is moving to Step 3 of its reopening plan next Friday, July 16, five days earlier than planned, allowing for larger indoor and outdoor gatherings, the province said today.
The move allows for outdoor social gatherings of up to 100 people and up to 25 people inside.
Indoor sports and recreational fitness facilities, including gyms, would be able to open again at 50 per cent capacity or a maximum of 1,000 people, whichever is less.
Indoor dining, retail and personal care would have no capacity limits as long as patrons can properly physically distance.
Religious services and events such as weddings and funerals can also operate indoors, as long as people are following other public health measures.
Places such as museums, aquariums, casinos and bingo halls can run at 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent outdoors. Cinemas will also be allowed to open under the same restrictions (the sale of popcorn and other food will be allowed).
Safe to move to next reopening step
The move also allows for concerts, theatres and sports facilities to operate at 50 per cent capacity inside, with a max of 1,000 people. If outside, they can run at 75 per cent capacity with a max of 5,000 people for unseated events and 15,000 people for events with fixed seating.
Nightclubs will also be allowed to reopen, with a maximum of 250 people or 25 per cent capacity. The province says patrons are exempt from physical distancing requirements when dancing, but that face coverings must also be worn and businesses must record the name and contact information of every patron.
For a full list of what restrictions will change in Step 3, click here.
The provincial mandate for masks indoors will remain in place until at least September.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, detailed the coming changes at a news conference Friday afternoon.
Moore, who said as recently as June 30 that he wanted Ontario to stay in Step 2 for at least three full weeks, said today that with falling case counts and high vaccination rates, he believes it is safe to move forward earlier than planned.
"Our immunization strategy is working really, really well," he said. "I didn't see any reason to hold us back."
Ontario was originally slated to move to Step 3 on July 21, but the province has passed its COVID-19 vaccination target for entering Step 3, with nearly 79 per cent of adults vaccinated with one dose and more than 50 per cent fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters briefly at a mass vaccination tour in Brampton on Friday, Premier Doug Ford said the province has a "very strong plan" when it comes to easing restrictions.
"We will have this province booming, similar to what we had before," he said.
'It's about time'
Thursday marks a major step for the fitness industry, which has seen almost non-stop closures since the start of the pandemic.
Though outdoor classes are currently permitted in Step 2, many industry professionals have been calling on Ontario to allow indoor training to resume.
Finally given the green light to open next Friday, Sean Maingot, CEO of Body By Chosen in Toronto, says interest in classes is high. "Already today I've had 15 people message me about new classes."
He said staff will be putting together last-minute plans to welcome clients again.
For many restaurants, the coming week will also involve intensive prep work, with indoor service being sprung on owners five days early.
While that change will impact ordering, food preparation and staffing, Tokyo Hot Fried Chicken owner Jordan Harasinski says he'll be ready.
"It's great, it's about time."
While some restaurants managed to sustain extended closures with delivery, and fitness studios have had online and outdoor classes to get them through, independent stores relying on curbside pickup have had a tougher go.
"The average small business during the COVID period has taken on $200,000 in new debt just to make their way through the COVID emergency in Ontario," said Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
He says this is just the beginning of the economic recovery — and some businesses may not be able to bounce back.
"I fully expect that there will be many businesses once they open their doors, realizing that there's no pathway back to profitability, and that's when they will make the permanent decision to close forever."
Concern about variants
Despite the progress, Moore, the chief medical officer of health, said he remains concerned about the presence of the delta and lambda variants of concern.
"Certainly the pandemic is not yet over," he said.
Delta is currently the dominant strain in the province. Six cases of the lambda variant have been confirmed so far.
Moore said that reaching a remaining 10 to 15 per cent of adults who have not had a vaccine but could be open to one remains a priority for health officials, especially given the risks posed by the variants.
WATCH | Dr. Moore on remaining in Step 2 for 21 days amid delta variant concerns:
According to a government news release, the province will stay in Step 3 for at least three weeks, and "until 80 per cent of the eligible population aged 12 and over has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 75 per cent have received their second, with no public health unit having less than 70 per cent of their population fully vaccinated."
"Upon meeting these thresholds, the vast majority of public health and workplace safety measures, including capacity limits for indoor and outdoor settings and limits for social gatherings, will be lifted," the release said.
Moore said he believes the thresholds are realistic.
"The goals we have set are, I think, attainable."
The premier agrees. And though Ford said he is "very grateful" to those who have been immunized, he's encouraging anyone who is eligible and hasn't yet been vaccinated to book an appointment.
"I'd love to see 100 per cent, but 80 per cent of a population of 15 million is pretty good," he said Friday.
183 new COVID-19 cases
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 183 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the fewest on a single day since Sept. 6, 2020 when the province was in the earliest weeks of its second wave of the pandemic.
Here are some other key pandemic indicators and figures from the Ministry of Health's daily provincial update:
Seven-day average of daily cases: 192
Tests completed: 26,101
Provincewide test positivity rate: 0.7 per cent, the lowest on a Friday since Sept. 4
Active cases: 1,757
Patients in ICU with COVID-related illnesses: 202; 143 needed a ventilator to breathe
Deaths: Nine, pushing the official death toll to 9,237
Vaccinations: 224,864, roughly 89 per cent of which were second doses. Nearly 79 per cent of Ontario adults have now had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
In Toronto, where just 22 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Friday, Mayor John Tory said he "welcomes" the province's plan to enter Step 3 early and believes it is the "right thing to do."
He said the announcement is good news for the hundreds of businesses that can now plan for their reopening.
"As we review the regulations and the impacts of these changes on City services, we will be working to implement the new regulations as quickly as possible," he said in a statement issued Friday.