Ford says he is open to loosening some dining, gym rules in Toronto and Peel Region

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TORONTO — Ontario could loosen some restrictions for Toronto and Peel Region to allow outdoor restaurant dining and fitness while keeping a lockdown in place, Premier Doug Ford said Thursday as the province tightened measures for another region.

The top doctors in Toronto and Peel have asked to have their communities remain in the strictest "grey lockdown" category of Ontario's pandemic framework but with the rules modified to allow for some currently shuttered services to be offered outdoors.

Ford said he was open to the idea and noted that the province's chief medical officer was discussing the issue with the two hotspots.

"Would I be in favour of letting people get outside and get some air? Absolutely," Ford said. "But I'm sticking with the health and science. And if all three doctors agree, then we'll take their advice."

Both Toronto and Peel have been in lockdown since last November, when surging COVID-19 rates caused the province to impose strict public health measures.

The "grey lockdown" category allows retailers to open with restrictions but limits restaurants to takeout and delivery and keeps gyms and personal care services closed.

Toronto's top doctor said she expects the province will announce its decision on the request to modify the rules on Friday.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health said Thursday that the province was in a third wave and he was concerned about the rising levels of COVID-19 variants in Toronto and Peel.

"We're asking ourselves what can we do to work with them?" Dr. David William said of the two regions' request for adjusted restrictions.

"We hope to be able to come up with some ideas as to how we might be able to help everybody stay at the task and keep this third wave under control, because we really don't want to see it take off in Toronto and Peel."

Williams warned that the seven day average for case numbers, positivity and deaths had all increased and urged people to continue to follow public health advice on masking and physical distancing.

"While we are entering the third wave, the question is what type of wave will it be?" he said. "We don't know right now."

Earlier Thursday, the government said it would be tightening restrictions for Ottawa on Friday due to a rise in cases there.

The city will move to the second-strictest "red" level of the province's colour-coded pandemic framework, which means retail stores will have capacity limits, indoor restaurant dining will see restrictions tightened and cinemas will close, among other things.

The government said the decision was made after Ottawa's medical officer of health requested the change due to "concerning trends" in the region.

The local public health unit said the case rate in the region rose by 24.8 per cent between March 10 and March 15. Eighty-two new cases were reported Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ford said Thursday that nearly half of Ontario residents aged 80 and older had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The province's vaccine booking portal and call centre have now scheduled appointments for 400,000 people, he added.

Ford acknowledged that there were "bumps in the road" when the booking portal came online Monday, but those have been resolved. He asked people to continue to sign up for the shot, and stressed the province needs to receive more vaccines.

"We're on our way to being able to administer 150,000 doses per day across the province," he said. "But as I keep saying, that all depends on one thing, the supply of vaccines."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press