TORONTO — Ontarians lined up for their first haircuts in months on Wednesday as the province rolled back public health restrictions on salons and other businesses in light of a decline in COVID-19 cases.
The second step of the province's economic reopening plan took effect early Wednesday morning, allowing hair salons to reopen to 25 per cent capacity, with masking and other rules in place.
Small lines had formed outside some east Toronto salons by mid-morning, with excited residents eager to shed their pandemic hairstyles.
"It's redemption. Life is opening up," said Jeff Walsh as he waited outside Oriental Hair Salon for his first in-store cut since November. "We can look forward to the future."
He said he tried to cut his own hair in the mirror this winter, but was looking forward to a professional styling.
A few doors down at Italy Hair Design, Frank Nguyen was waiting to chop off his shoulder-length locks that hadn't been cut since before pandemic restrictions set in over a year ago.
"I'm getting tired of long hair," he said in the morning sun. "It's hot."
Kerrie Wilcox was also excited to get a professional cut after making do with at-home methods during the pandemic.
“My nephew did it two months ago but it’s not like they can do it,” Wilcox said. “I can’t wait.”
Salons have been shut down across the province since strict measures took effect in April to curb a deadly third wave in infections, but the wait for a fresh cut has been especially long in Toronto and Peel Region. The two virus hot spots have seen the facilities shut since last November.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed up for public appearances on Wednesday sporting a fresh haircut. He had also shaved his beard, which has been a mainstay of his look since January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada.
Capacity limits are also expanding for Ontario retail stores as of Wednesday. Groups of 25 people outdoors and five indoors can gather together, and outdoor events, performances and fitness classes are permitted with restrictions.
The changes are taking effect a few days ahead of schedule due to strong vaccination rates and other positive public health indicators.
Amber Fairlie, owner of the Manor salon in midtown Toronto, said that the week's notice on reopening was like riding a roller-coaster at Canada's Wonderland without all the fun.
"It's definitely hard to get back on track when you've been pushed off the rails for a long time, but we're managing," said Fairlie as she trimmed a client's hair.
"We're excited to be back and this better never happen again."
At Vanessa's Nail and Spa in Toronto, owner Vanessa Phan said she was happy to see clients again after the long shutdown, though she could only welcome them in small numbers.
"We tried to take only appointments," she said. "One or two people is good."
Toronto Mayor John Tory encouraged people to support local salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors as owners were finally able to open their doors.
"This pandemic and the health measures have been incredibly tough, especially for these hardworking businesses offering personal services," Tory said at a pandemic update on Wednesday.
"Please book your appointments and please tip generously when you're there."
Opposition politicians called for more grants for small businesses struggling to stay open after a year of on-and-off lockdowns.
"Ontario's recovery is on the line," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.
As of Wednesday, more than 77 per cent of adults in the province had at least one vaccine dose and 39 per cent were fully vaccinated. Ontario reported 184 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and 14 deaths .
Vaccination rates have already blown past the target set for the next stage of reopening, which would see more indoor activities and larger gatherings allowed. But the province's top doctor said this week that he'd prefer to take a cautious approach and would likely wait the scheduled 21 days before rolling back public health rules further, citing risks posed by the more transmissible Delta variant.
That COVID-19 strain delayed the reopening in Waterloo Region, which is staying in Step 1 of the province's reopening plan as it battles a surge in Delta cases.
Public health officials in the region said starting Thursday, all COVID-19 vaccination clinics would accept same day walk-ins from people seeking their first shots.
Premier Doug Ford and other provincial cabinet ministers noted the reopening date with social media posts asking people to continue following health measures and get vaccinated.
The head of the Ontario Hospital Association said the measured reopening plan, along with strong vaccination progress, has signaled relief for overburdened hospitals and their staff.
"In hospitals the worst is likely behind us," Anthony Dale said on Twitter. "Ontario has challenges ahead, particularly reopening schools, but this crisis is ending."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter and John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press