TORONTO — Residents of Canada's largest city will be able to eat inside a restaurant, visit a museum and attend some sporting events starting Friday as Toronto joins most of Ontario in Stage 3 of the province's COVID-19 recovery plan.
Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region were given the green light Wednesday to move ahead later in the week, in what Premier Doug Ford called a "massive step forward" for residents in those areas.
Some recreational programs such as fitness and music classes are also permitted to resume under Stage 3, as are team sports without physical contact and personal grooming services such as facials and beard trims, although all remain subject to public health guidelines.
In preparation for the looser restrictions, Toronto councillors passed a series of health measures recommended by the city's medical officer of health, which they said were aimed at preventing a new spike in cases. These include capacity and table-size limits for restaurants to ensure physical distancing indoors.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the measures were necessary given the city's dense population, adding it's "better to be really safe than sorry."
"In this city there are 7,000 of those kinds of places where people can eat and drink, and the safer you can be, the better everybody will be and the less chance that there is spread," Tory said in a news conference.
Wednesday's announcement came as Ontario saw its lowest day-to-day increase in cases of COVID-19 since late March, with only 76 new cases reported.
Thirty of those new cases were reported in Windsor-Essex, the only region that will remain in Stage 2 for the time being.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed, the associate medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, said there had been a rise in cases in the city of Windsor in addition to the ongoing outbreaks on farms.
The province wants to collect and examine data for at least another week before deciding whether the region can move ahead in the reopening process, Ahmed said, adding numbers for the region must fall closer to the provincial average.
He stressed the need to continue with physical distancing and other health measures, suggesting some may feel even in Stage 2 that everything is back to normal.
"With more reopening ... the likelihood of people coming in close contact with each other increases," Ahmed said in a news conference Wednesday morning.
The province said it will continue to monitor the situation in Windsor-Essex and provide assistance through measures such as on-farm testing.
Windsor-Essex, Toronto and Peel Region had been held back in Stage 2 because officials said they wanted more data before giving the go-ahead for a broader reopening.
The premier on Wednesday also urged caution even as he lauded the province for the progress it has made in containing the virus.
"As we allow restaurants, bars and theatres to reopen, we need everyone to stay vigilant," Ford said in a news conference.
"The reality is, until we find a vaccine, COVID-19 is here to stay. But today's numbers should give us some hope we're on the right path."
Critics, however, said the premier is to blame for the virus's continued spread in Windsor-Essex, as well as the financial impact on the region.
"His decisions have led directly to this situation," New Democrat legislator Taras Natyshak said in a statement.
"He's failed to provide the provincial leadership and resources necessary to deal with the public health emergency here in Windsor-Essex, and he's refused to offer support for local businesses that they need to survive."
Twenty-four of Ontario's 34 public health units were allowed to enter Stage 3 on July 17, with another seven joining them on July 24.
Two cities in Stage 3, Ottawa and Sudbury, have seen new cases of COVID-19 emerge in recent days, but Ford said Tuesday there are no plans to roll back the reopening in any areas.
The total number of cases in Ontario now stands at 38,986, which includes 34,741 cases marked as resolved and 2,769 deaths.
The province reported one new death related to the novel coronavirus on Wednesday. There were also 174 cases newly marked as resolved.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the number of people in hospital, in intensive care and on ventilators all dropped.
She said the province was able to complete more than 27,000 tests the previous day.
— with files from John Chidley-Hill
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2020
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press