Two of Ontario's biggest regions will join almost all of the rest of the province in stage three this week.
That's according to a government announcement that says people in Toronto and Peel Region will be able to hit the gym, grab a drink in the indoor part of bars and take the kids to the playground as of Friday morning, at 12:01 a.m.
"While more restaurants, theatres and businesses can hang up their Open for Business sign, we're asking everyone to follow public health advice and act responsibly," stated Premier Doug Ford, putting the emphasis on health and safety as the province lifts its coronavirus restrictions.
But he urged constant vigilance lest the virus, which has killed over 2,700 Ontarians, surge again in the province. "This virus is still among us and we have to be extra cautious to avoid sparking a surge or an outbreak. I strongly urge everyone to continue following public health protocols."
Toronto and Peel were two of the three regions stuck in stage two, as the province wanted to wait for more data to ensure that it was safe for the highly populated areas to jump into stage three, which is expected to last a while, becoming a new normal until a vaccine is available. Toronto has been doing especially well, with only one additional positive coronavirus case in yesterday's daily numbers.
The announcement won quick support from local politicians eager to see the area they represent join the rest of the province in stage three, including Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.
This was based on the recommendation of Ontario & Peel’s Medical Officers of Health. Our #COVID__19 case counts are consistently down. We can’t let up wearing masks, washing hands, maintaining physical distance but I do agree this was the right call. 👍 @fordnation #onpoli https://t.co/5QQb0gmYaq
— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownont) July 29, 2020
The news could be a boon for the hard-hit hospitality industry, which, aside from open patios and takeout/delivery, has been mostly closed since health restrictions were introduced in mid-March.
But the City of Toronto has expressed a desire to place additional limits on restaurants and bars opening, including decreasing capacity thresholds, maintaining patron logs to conduct contact tracing, insisting that patrons remain seated, and imposing earlier closing times. In its announcement, the province indicated it is amenable to additional local restrictions.
Following the announcement city council passed a motion to endorse the restrictions. The NDP urged the premier to comply with the request. "The NDP is calling for the province to implement these six measures as an emergency order in any region still showing community spread. Reopening indoor service at bars and restaurants is an increased risk. It’s Ford’s job to mitigate those risks," stated MPP Gurratan Singh.
Other areas of the province that had been doing well before stage three have started to struggle in their coronavirus case counts. That's true of Ottawa, which did particularly well early on but saw 25 additional cases yesterday. The surge in Ottawa cases has been blamed on social gatherings across age groups, with health officials in the city urging residents to get back to basics with public health measures.
In comments yesterday, the premier indicated that he would not be busting Ottawa down to stage two any time soon. However, Windsor-Essex will remain at stage two until further notice.
The area in Southwestern Ontario has been hard hit by outbreaks in agricultural communities, especially among migrant workers. Despite the premier's repeated frustrations exhorting people in the region to get tested, many have declined to do so, and the premier has so far declined in turn to make tests mandatory, although it's a measure he has considered.
The Windsor-Essex region saw 30 additional coronavirus cases today, accounting for almost 40 per cent of the province's caseload. The region also saw one additional death, a woman in her 80s.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed, Windsor's chief medical officer of health, explained that the province wants to see at least another week's worth of data before giving the region the green light for stage three. In his morning teleconference with media he also urged local residents to improve their pandemic practices in light of the case numbers. "Maybe it's a mental state ... that everything's back to normal," he speculated. "It's not."
Windsor's case rate is six to seven times greater than the provincial average, he added.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province will continue to monitor Windsor-Essex, which was the last part of the province to enter stage two. "While public health trends across the province are positive, we continue to closely monitor Windsor-Essex so that we can move the community into stage three when the time is right."
NDP MPP Taras Natyshak blamed the premier for Windsor's plight, saying that his response on testing and contact tracing has been insufficient. "The responsibility lies entirely with Doug Ford. His decisions have led directly to this situation. He’s failed to provide the provincial leadership and resources necessary to deal with the public health emergency here in Windsor-Essex, and he’s refused to offer support for local businesses that they need to survive."
Green Leader Mike Schreiner echoed the premier's messaging that Ontarians must maintain their public health vigilance, but he also positioned stage three as a privilege to be earned, and one that should be taken away if metrics backslide. "Premier Ford must assure the public that he will not hesitate to pull us back to stage two if the curve starts going in the wrong direction. Aggressive public health measures must be the norm until we have a vaccine."
Health experts have expressed concern that elements of stage three, especially re-opening bars and restaurants, could pose a significant risk given the chance that a second wave strikes in the fall and winter season. That second wave could be more difficult to manage as it coincides with flu season when people will be more vulnerable and hospitals may have less flexibility to manage patients if they can't tell apart who has the flu and who has the coronavirus.
Ontario saw its best coronavirus number in months, breaking under the 100 mark for the first time since late-March. The province saw 76 positive coronavirus tests, according to the last data.