TORONTO — Hair salons and outdoor fitness classes will reopen in Ontario regions under lockdown, the government announced Friday even as it tightened restrictions in one of its largest cities due to soaring cases of COVID-19.
Personal care services and gyms have been shuttered in the province's virus hot spots for months since they weren't allowed to operate in the strictest "grey lockdown" category of Ontario's pandemic framework.
Premier Doug Ford defended the decision to loosen those rules even as another city -- Hamilton -- is moved to the "grey" zone and COVID-19 cases rise in the province's intensive case units.
"I'm very, very concerned," he said. "A message to the people of Ontario. Do not let your guard down ... We're loosening it up, just a little bit."
Under the new rules, hair and nail salons can open with capacity limits as of April 12 in regions in the "grey" zone.
The government will also allow gyms to offer outdoor fitness classes, training and personal training as of Monday.
"I've got to be frank, people are tired," Ford said. "They're exhausted out there. They need a little bit of fresh air. But please, do it very carefully. That's all we're asking."
Friday's changes marked the latest loosening of restrictions in the province's pandemic framework.
Last week, the province announced changes that allowed outdoor restaurant dining in "grey" zones and increased indoor capacity limits for restaurants in other regions. Public health experts criticized the indoor restaurant dining changes, saying they were ill-timed as the province is experiencing a third wave.
Ontario also said Friday that it will impose new restrictions on the Eastern Ontario Health Unit on Monday, moving it to the second-strictest "red" category of the pandemic framework.
The province further announced it was making changes to its "emergency brake" measure, which allows it to swiftly tighten restrictions on a region.
The change will allow the province's top doctor, in consultation with a local medical officer of health, to move a region into a "shutdown" with measures similar to those imposed in January, when most retailers closed and only essential services remained open.
The province's changes to the rules came as the president of the Ontario Hospital Association warned Friday that the third wave of COVID-19 is threatening intensive-care capacity.
Anthony Dale said 401 people with COVID-19 are currently in intensive care units across Ontario and it appears that number is set to rise past an earlier record of 420 people set on Jan. 15.
"The health system will face punishing conditions in the weeks to come, and it is vital that each and every Ontarian redouble their efforts to protect themselves, their loved ones, and those who continue to fight the virus on the frontlines," Dale said in a statement.
Hospitals have admitted 74 severely ill patients with COVID-19 over the past 48 hours, he said, noting that there are currently a total of 1,871 people in ICUs across Ontario.
"These levels are already well beyond the threshold after which hospitals can operate normally," Dale said.
"If the number of ICU admissions continues to increase in the days ahead, as is expected, Ontario's hospitals will be under extraordinary pressure to try and ensure equitable access to lifesaving critical care."
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the hospital situation is under control because the province added intensive care beds since the pandemic started.
"We are prepared, if there are further increases, that we will be able to deal with them ," she said.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said the decision to reopen hair salons and outdoor fitness is more about politics than the pandemic.
"I understand the premier wants to help small business, so give them the funding so they can bridge for the next two or three months because that's all that is left," Doris Grinspun said. "If we don't do that, it will be a disaster because we will mourning more and more people who will die."
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the latest data from the hospital association shows the province should be doing more to address the third wave.
"We need paid sick days and paid leave so essential workers can get vaccinated. Safe workplaces are vital to containing spread and avoiding another lockdown," he said.
The rising number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care comes as provincial health officials say more contagious variants of the virus now make up half of new cases in Ontario.
The province's top doctor said earlier this week that variants are causing more severe illness, leading to intensive care admissions and deaths.
Dr. David Williams also noted that more young people appear to be getting more severely ill from the variants.
The scientific director of an expert panel advising the province said Thursday that a strict provincial shutdown, similar to one imposed when the pandemic hit, is needed to curb the alarming spread of variants in Ontario.
Currently, even the strictest level of the province's pandemic framework isn't enough to reduce rising infections from more contagious variants, said Dr. Peter Juni of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
Ontario reported 2,169 new cases of COVID-19 Friday and 12 more deaths linked to the virus.
Meanwhile, Elliott's office said Friday that she will receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a pharmacy Monday morning, with media present. Elliott said earlier that she would receive the shot on camera in an effort to combat what she called "unfortunate" hesitancy around the vaccine.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press