Toronto is poised to extend a suite of bylaws introduced to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, though officials say plans are also underway for the city to eventually begin tiptoeing its way out of the pandemic shutdown.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, recommended last week that the temporary COVID-19 bylaws currently in place should remain in effect until early June.
Those restrictions are set to expire after Feb. 3.
The bylaws include mandatory physical distancing of two metres among people from different households in public spaces and the requirement of masks in common areas of apartment buildings and condominiums, among other temporary rules.
But de Villa has also offered to "review the necessity" of the measures on a monthly basis, suggesting that some could be lifted before her new recommended expiry date.
Mayor John Tory said Toronto has started planning an approach to slowly and safely cancel some of the restrictions, though he said a specific strategy or timeline for the city's reopening has not yet been determined.
"We've just begun the planning process for that and what we don't want to do is get ahead of ourselves on this and start telling people which bylaws are going to be lifted first," Tory said.
"We still have a big job to do getting these numbers down."
Most indicators gauging the severity of the pandemic — daily news cases, new hospitalizations and total active cases — are declining in Toronto. Province-wide indicators are also showing signs of improvement.
However, concerns about the spread of new, more contagious variants of the virus and complications around the rollout of vaccines suggest the city remains in a precarious situation.
Despite some improvements in recent weeks, Toronto Public Health still lists the status of virus spread and containment in the "red" zone, the highest level of alarm in the city's colour-coded system.
City council will vote on the extension at its next session beginning on Feb. 2.
Vaccination rates, better understanding of virus to influence reopening
While it's not yet clear when it will be deemed safe for Toronto to begin reopening, officials say the process will look much like it did in the late spring and early summer of 2020, when the city slowly emerged from the first wave of the pandemic.
"My guess is the reopening will happen much as it did in the spring," Tory said. "If you go back and look at that time, we didn't go from lockdown to fully open in one day or one week."
Asked what the city could do differently this time, Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto's board of health, noted experts now know much more about how COVID-19 spreads compared to last year, including the firmly established finding that the risk of transmission is far lower outdoors than indoors.
Cressy said the bylaws regulating physical distancing in public spaces are likely to be removed before others that apply only in indoor spaces, such as residential buildings or restaurants.
Also unlike the spring of 2020, Toronto health officials say the rollout of vaccines, and statistics on vaccination rates, will influence Toronto's approach to reopening.
Province will decide much of the plan
While Toronto public health officials have signalled a willingness to keep the bylaws active for several more months, many of the biggest decisions concerning the city's reopening will be made by the provincial government.
It is Ontario that determines the type of restrictions in each region, and the provincial government also decides when regions or cities are moved from one zone to another.
However, Toronto has already set a precedent for going above and beyond provincial orders.
In November 2020, de Villa announced a number of restrictions that amounted to a significant enhancement of the provincial measures in place at the time, which included the closure of indoor dining and gyms. The province responded 10 days later by moving Toronto into its "lockdown" zone, confirming many of the measures implemented by the city.
While Cressy said consistent restrictions across the GTA would be most effective during the next reopening, he also left open the possibility that Toronto could once again decide to introduce its own set of restrictions.
"Throughout this pandemic, we have shown as a city that when we need to take action, we will," he said.