Details of next step of Ontario's reopening plan in the works, health minister says

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TORONTO — Exact details of the public health restrictions that will take effect under the next stage of Ontario's reopening plan are in the works, the health minister said Wednesday as municipal leaders called for clarity on the rules.

Restrictions on businesses and gatherings are due to roll back further in two weeks, but the fine print on capacity limits, masking rules and other pending measures have yet to be spelled out.

"Businesses do need to have this information in order to be able to plan and it's something that we are actively working on now," Christine Elliott said on Wednesday. "We will release this information well in advance."

Despite positive pandemic trends and pressure from local politicians and businesses, Elliott indicated Wednesday that the province would stick with its 21-day wait between reopening stages to avoid a virus resurgence driven by a more infectious variant.

Mayors and chairs from the largest municipalities in the Toronto and Hamilton areas called for clear guidance on Step 3 earlier in the week so that businesses and organizations can plan effectively for the changes.

"The guidelines themselves, even in draft form, are needed on an urgent basis for planning purposes and we know the province understands the needs of these hard-hit businesses and individuals," the group said in a statement.

Gyms, indoor dining and indoor events are permitted under the next stage of the three-step plan.

Pandemic restrictions have been rolled back gradually after a strict provincewide lockdown took effect this spring to control a deadly third wave of infections. Public health indicators have significantly improved in recent weeks as Ontario's vaccination effort expands.

The province has passed its COVID-19 vaccination target for entering Step 3, with 78 per cent of adults vaccinated with one dose and 49 per cent fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. Cases have declined significantly as well, with 194 new infections reported on Wednesday and no new deaths linked to the virus.

Elliott said, however, that the government wants to proceed cautiously with its reopening plan, a position Ontario's top doctor has also maintained.

She cited the risk posed by the more infectious Delta variant, which has caused virus resurgences in areas with high vaccine coverage like the U.K. and Israel, and locally in some Ontario jurisdictions that had seen relatively few infections before the variant took hold.

An Oakville, Ont., gym that had reopened ahead of schedule to members with doctor's notes was recently ordered to close due to a variant-related COVID-19 outbreak, an example Elliott pointed to as "cautionary."

"The Delta variant is still very, very active," Elliott said. "We don't want to have a fourth wave and we don't want to have to take a step up backwards."

The head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Ontario's reopening plan was too slow when compared to other provinces like Alberta and British Columbia that have lifted the majority of public health restrictions.

"Consider that everything that can start to reopen in Step 3 has been open for weeks or months in almost every province in Canada on the advice of their public health officials," Dan Kelly wrote on Twitter.

Restrictions on some businesses in Toronto and Peel Region have been in place since late last year amid consistently high infection rates that have finally begun to drop off. A mayor of a city in Peel that's been a hot spot for most of the pandemic also called for a faster reopening on Wednesday in light of the latest trends.

The mayor of Brampton touted the progress seen at a major city hospital, which as of Wednesday was treating just a handful of COVID-19 patients, and said he'd support moving the reopening schedule up by a week or more.

"I think it's time we show the public some more good will," Patrick Brown told reporters. "I want to see our economy opened up again now that the sacrifices we have made have paid dividends in terms of health outcomes."

- With files from Elena De Luigi.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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