Seven more regions across the province will enter stage three of reopening on Friday, joining 24 regions that were already given the green light to make the move on July 17. But Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex County will remain in stage two for now as the government continues to watch public health trends in these three regions.
This comes as the province reported 135 new cases of COVID-19 — a dip following two days of more than 160 cases. The increase in cases reported over the weekend came after more than one week of 130 or fewer new daily cases. Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex County accounted for about 60 per cent of the 135 new cases, with the three regions reporting 26, 35 and 21 new cases, respectively.
"As of Friday, thousands of more businesses will be able to open up, and we'll be there for them when they do because we're all in this together," said Premier Doug Ford at Queen's Park on Monday. "And for the other regions (that) entered stage two later in the process, please be patient, we'll get there very shortly."
The premier announced on July 13 that all regions in Ontario could move to stage three on July 17, with the exception of the areas represented by 10 public health units. Now Durham, Haldimand-Norfolk, Halton, Hamilton, Lambton, Niagara and York are set to move to stage three at the end of the week.
Those same seven regions joined stage two on June 19, after the initial wave of stage two reopenings on June 12. Toronto and Peel had to wait until June 24, with Windsor-Essex County being the last region to see restaurant patios, hair salons and malls reopen, with a gradual process that saw Leamington and Kingsville the last communities to join the rest of the province in stage two.
Premier Ford had promised he wouldn't get rid of the "mop" on his head until all of Ontario was in stage two, and so the spectacle that was the premier's haircut occurred last week in Leamington, one of the areas that has been hit hard by outbreaks on farms.
The government didn't indicate when Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex County would be able to enter stage three. Elliott said the government needs to wait for four weeks of public health data, although she didn't outline any specific benchmarks for these regions.
A move to stage three means that gyms, movie theatres, playgrounds and dine-in options at bars and restaurants will be permitted. The stage two social gathering limit of 10 people will also be increased to 50 people for indoor events and 100 for outdoor ones.
While stage three will allow most businesses to resume operations, there are some activities that the government is not yet permitting including buffets, patrons singing and dancing at bars and restaurants, amusement parks and water parks, overnight camps for children, private karaoke rooms, prolonged or deliberate contact while playing sports, saunas and bathhouses, and live table games at casinos.
Health Minister Christine Elliott stressed that while stage three is a "recognition of positive local trends and public health indicators," it will be "critical" for people to continue practising physical distancing, wearing masks, washing their hands and limiting close contact to their social circles of 10 people. Case and contact tracing will also be key, said Elliott, pointing to a new information and technology system that the province has started rolling out at local public health units.
Meanwhile, the contact tracing app that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in June has yet to be launched. Premier Ford said the app could be released on Friday, but he said that moving to stage three in Ontario will not be dependent on the app coming out.
"We look at the numbers and as long as they're declining, and they're going in the right direction, and we consult with the local chief medical officer, that's how it's gonna move forward and hopefully they're going to move forward sooner than later," he said, although stating earlier in his press conference that he's prepared to put further health measures in place if needed.
"We can't give this virus an absolute inch and part of the process is learning from other jurisdictions about what works and what doesn't work," he said.
Since the government announced that its stage three plan would include the reopening of indoor dining at bars and restaurants, it has faced criticism from epidemiologists and groups like the Ontario Medical Association who fear this could lead to an increase in cases.
One epidemiologist told QP Briefing last week that allowing bars and restaurants to move customers indoors "jeopardizes school reopening" in the fall.
Asked if the province was putting economic recovery ahead of public health in this decision, Ford said his "number one priority is always public health."
He went on to say that despite the province loosening restrictions on bars and restaurants, local medical officers of health could "put stricter restrictions" in place.
"And you know something, I wouldn't disagree with that," said Ford. "I always believe you can't put health ahead of the economy ever, because without people's health there is no economy."
Asked about concerns over a possible spike in cases with indoor areas of bars and restaurants reopening, Ford cited a letter from Toronto Mayor John Tory calling for more restrictions such as making sure patrons stay seated except when they go to the washroom or make a payment.
"They're all great valid points and that's an option for the health team to come up with a right answer," said Ford, adding that it's up to each region to do what is best for their area since "we can't compare" Toronto to Kenora.