TORONTO — Ontario is ending its vaccine certificate system on March 1, when capacity limits in public settings and restrictions on social gathering sizes will fully lift as well, though masking requirements will remain for now.

Premier Doug Ford insisted the steps are not a result of pressure from anti-vaccine mandate protesters.

“Today’s announcement is not because of what’s happening in Ottawa or Windsor, but despite it,” he said Monday.

“The extraordinary measures that we introduced during this pandemic were always intended as a last resort. I stood at this very podium and promised you that these tools would only be used for as long as they were absolutely necessary and not one day longer. The removal of these measures has always been our objective.”

Public health indicators have been improving, with the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests dropping from a peak of nearly 40 per cent to 13 per cent, and hospitalizations down under 1,400 from a high of more than 4,000, Ford said.

Due to those metrics, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore presented a plan to lift the COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine certificates, Ford said, noting that the plan had been in the works since before protesters began occupying downtown Ottawa more than two weeks ago.

Ford said he understands frustration with the restrictions, though he credited them for saving tens of thousands of lives, and lamented the divisions they have caused.

“All of it has polarized us in a way that we could have never imagined. I’ve experienced this in my own family. It’s been one of the hardest things my family and I have ever gone through,” said Ford, whose daughter is a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates.

“But for all of this, I can still take comfort in knowing that there remains so much that unites us.”

Ontario is now fast-tracking previously announced steps to lift restrictions, including moving the next step of its reopening plan up to Thursday instead of next Monday.

On that day, social gathering limits will increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, while capacity limits will be removed in places such as restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theatres. Capacity at businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and retail stores will be set at the number of people who can maintain a distance of two metres.

Less than two weeks later, on March 1, capacity limits will be lifted in all remaining indoor public settings and proof-of-vaccination requirements will end for all settings.

Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director of Ontario’s science advisory table, said the plan is supported by the data. 

Juni, who was a proponent of the vaccine certificate system, said the two-dose requirement was no longer efficient and a three-dose vaccine certificate should include people who had two doses plus a recent infection, due to immunity levels both confer.

“I believe it’s more honest just to say, ‘OK, we drop it. We’re unable right now to move to a three-dose vaccine certificate system that properly takes into account immunity through infection,'” Juni said, adding this approach keeps the system credible for the future.

“These certificates were always meant as a short-term tool to control the pandemic, so we’d rather have them in the back pocket if you need them again,” he said.

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases specialist at McMaster University, said the plan is a reasonable path back to normal. Masks, he said, will likely stick around until the warmer weather decreases transmission even more.

Chagla said he hopes Ontario has seen its last lockdown.

“I really hope that the path forward is not necessarily on the backs of businesses opening and closing, and other things like masks and working from home, really soft-touch measure to reduce transmission may be here intermittently for some time,” he said.

“Hopefully this is the path to endemicity, that we just keep using softer measures to deal with our surges and work towards scaling up health-care capacity and treatments to make sure that the highest risk are still protected.”

A coalition of children’s hospitals, including SickKids and CHEO in Ottawa, urged the government to exercise caution in lifting COVID-19 measures in schools, noting that many children remain unvaccinated, including those under five who are not yet eligible.

Public health units can still use tools to respond to their local COVID-19 situation, and businesses and other settings can still require proof of vaccination if they choose, the province said.

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the acting medical officer of health in Niagara Region, said he is disappointed that the sped-up timeline doesn’t leave more time between each of the steps to properly assess the impacts.

Even so, he doesn’t plan on implementing local measures because the constrained testing doesn’t provide a good enough picture about what is happening with local spread.

“It’s a nice sentiment, but we don’t really have the tool right now to be able to figure out what’s going on in the community so we can address that with local measures,” he said.

The fact that in a few weeks there will be very few public health measures in place should spur people to get their first, second or third vaccine doses, Hirji said.

“There’s going to be so little protecting us otherwise,” he said.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Monday’s announcement feels like a true step toward small businesses’ economic recovery, but sought clarity for those that decide to maintain proof of vaccination.

“Just telling them that they’re free to keep it — does that mean that they’re free to keep it without risks of a human rights case or lawsuit?” said CFIB president Dan Kelly.

“I suspect not. And so I do believe that businesses will be taking on potentially some legal risk if they maintain a proof-of-vaccination system in their business.”

In order to spur businesses’ recovery, Kelly said governments need to boost consumer confidence to take part in the reopening. 

“We’ve told Canadians for two straight years that it’s dangerous to leave your home, stay home as much as possible or or leave only with really, really heavy restrictions around it,” he said. 

“There are going to be many, many Canadians that are going to remain fairly hunkered down, because this is a pretty big shift in messaging. And so it’s going to take, I think, some work on the part of governments and public health officials to provide those messages of reassurance.” 

Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the vaccine certificates should stay in place, because they can still protect seniors who are at higher risk of severe illness and children still too young to be vaccinated.

A vaccine mandate for staff in long-term care homes will remain, Ford said.

The province also announced that youth aged 12 to 17 can book booster doses of a COVID-19 vaccine as of 8 a.m. on Friday.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has only recommended booster doses for high-risk teenagers, such as those who are immunocompromised. A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario’s decision to expand eligibility to anyone 12 to 17 who had their second shot six months ago is based on the advice of the chief medical officer of health and the Ontario Immunization Advisory Committee. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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