TORONTO — Ontario will move to the third stage of its reopening plan next Friday – several days ahead of schedule – allowing gyms and restaurants to open indoor operations and larger gatherings to take place.

The government said high vaccination rates and improvements in other pandemic metrics had allowed for the early move to Step 3. It said positive trends are expected to continue up until the July 16 reopening date. 

Premier Doug Ford thanked Ontarians who have been administering and receiving vaccines, saying they helped the province progress faster. 

“While this is welcome news for everyone who wants a return to normal, we will not slow down our efforts to fully vaccinate everyone who wants to be and put this pandemic behind us once and for all,” he said in a statement announcing the news Friday. 

As of Friday, 78 per cent of adults in the province had at least once dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 52 per cent were fully vaccinated. Pressure from municipal politicians and business leaders to move up the reopening date had been mounting after the province blew past its vaccine targets weeks ago. 

Ontario has moved up its reopening schedule for each stage of its three-step plan, which has seen restrictions gradually roll back amid dropping infection rates and growing vaccine coverage.

The province’s top doctor, who previously maintained he wanted to wait 21 days between reopening stages, said he shifted his position based on positive health trends and high vaccine uptake.

“I didn’t see any reason to hold us back, given that so many Ontarians have come forward,” Dr. Kieran Moore said Friday. 

Moore asked residents, however, to remain vigilant against the virus given the risk of new variants like the more transmissible Delta strain that’s now dominant in Ontario. The province has also detected six cases of the Lambda variant, which the World Health Organization has labeled a virus variant of interest.

Face coverings and physical distancing requirements will remain in place during Step 3, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on July 16, though Moore said public health units can opt to remain in Step 2 for longer if they wish.

Friday’s announcement brought with it the province’s long-awaited guidance on capacity limits for businesses reopening or expanding operations in Step 3. 

Social gatherings and public events are limited to 25 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, with some exceptions.

Gyms can reopen to 50 per cent capacity indoors. Sports facilities can invite spectators in to 50 per cent capacity indoors, or 1,000 people, and 75 per cent spectator capacity outdoors or a maximum of 15,000 people. 

Indoor dining can also resume, with no set limits on the number of people per table, as long as physical distancing of two metres can be maintained. The province’s isn’t setting a maximum number of people that can be inside a restaurant. 

Religious services and other ceremonies can resume indoors with physical distancing rules. 

Capacity is expanding for retail stores and personal care services like salons, allowing as many people inside that can maintain a distance of two metres. 

Concert venues, cinemas and theatres can also open indoors to 50 per cent capacity or a maximum limit of 1,000 people, whichever adds up to fewer people. Outdoor venues for such activities can open up to 75 per cent capacity with a limit of 5,000 people for unseated events or 15,000 people for events with fixed seating.  

Museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos, bingo halls and amusement parks are allowed to open to 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent outdoors. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the move to Step 3 “the first sign of light at the end of the tunnel” for small business owners while calling for grants to help them bounce back from an extended shutdown. 

“Reopening is a start, and today’s announcement is significant, but it will not put small businesses on an immediate pathway to profitability,” it said. “Businesses need additional provincial and federal support to help ensure a safe and stable reopening and recovery.”

The majority of restrictions in Ontario will be lifted as soon as 21 days after Step 3, the province said. 

But that will only happen once 75 per cent of people 12 and older have been fully vaccinated and every public health unit has fully vaccinated at least 70 per cent of eligible residents. 

Moore called those targets “ambitious,” but “good and reasonable,” given that he predicts COVID-19 cases will rise in the fall when people move indoors.

“It’s our job to anticipate that and to have the largest immunization rate we can,” he said. 

The Ontario Hospital Association called for the government to push second-dose vaccine coverage to prevent a fourth wave of infections in the fall.

“The hospital sector supports every effort to return to normalcy, but we must also collectively do everything possible to avoid a fourth wave and the subsequent reintroduction of significant public health measures,” it said. 

After Step 3, some rules like safety plans in businesses will remain in place and the province said it’s keeping its indoor mask rule for public spaces but will re-assess it.

Ontario reported 183 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and nine more deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 9, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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