The Ontario government has unveiled a plan to lift all remaining public health restrictions by March, including the mandatory mask order and the vaccine passport system that only took effect last month.
Premier Doug Ford detailed the "gradual" plan to exit Step 3 of the province's roadmap to reopen during a news conference at Queen's Park on Friday afternoon.
The announcement comes on the heels of Ontario's science table releasing new modelling, which warns that lifting public health restrictions prematurely could still "drive a new wave even with strong vaccine coverage."
"I want to be cautious, very cautious moving forward. We are one of the most cautious provinces, but in saying that the numbers are stable and this isn't a one-way street, it has to be a two-way street and there has to be benefits to the people across Ontario given all the hard work they have done," Ford said at Queen's Park. "But let me reinforce the word cautious. We have always been cautious and I'm going to be super cautious. If we do not see the numbers in a stable place, we just aren't going to do it."
According to a news release, the province will be taking a "gradual approach" to lifting all remaining public health restrictions over the next six months so long as public health indicators remain positive.
The first step, which begins at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, will see capacity limits lifted in the vast majority of settings where proof of vaccination is required, including restaurants and gyms.
The province says that it will also permit a wide swath of other businesses to lift capacity limits as of Monday so long as they introduce vaccination requirements.
That means that personal care services and museums, among others, could also operate at full capacity for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
Full capacity weddings, funerals and religious services will be permitted as well but only where venues require proof of vaccination.
Meanwhile, the province says that on Jan. 17, 2022, it will begin to gradually lift capacity limits in settings where proof of vaccination is not required, provided there are no "concerning trends" that emerge following the winter holidays.
It says that it could also begin to lift the proof of vaccination for some settings at the same time, including restaurants, bars, sports and recreational facilities, casinos and bingo halls.
Three weeks later, on Feb. 7, the province hopes to lift the proof-of-vaccination requirements for high-risk settings as well, including nightclubs, strip clubs and bathhouses.
That would mean that the proof of vaccination system introduced for some non-essential settings in September would be effectively scrapped just five months after being put into place.
The government has also set March 28 as the target date to lift all "remaining public health and workplace safety measures," including the requirement for individuals to wear masks while in indoor public settings.
"By March, we hope we've maximized our immunization strategy in Ontario and that we have more Ontarians immunized to the point that this virus doesn't have a host in which you can reproduce," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters at Queen's Park.
"We'll have our third dose strategies completed, our immunization strategy for children from five to 11 will have been completed and then we will have to learn to live with this virus, but it gives us a significant amount of time to build up the immunization protection of our population."
Dr. Fahad Radzak, an internist and epidemiologist at St. Michael's Hospital and a member of the Ontario COVID-19 science advisory table, said the province's plan is "reasonable."
"So, what our modelling showed is that you can start the process of opening up some parts of society, things like public venues, gyms, restaurants, etc. as long as you maintain other appropriate public health measures, and importantly, the requirement for vaccine certificates, masking, and again, focusing on things like vent ventilation and filtration," Radzak said.
"And, of course, with COVID, you have to remain humble. So, if things start to rise, react quickly. But this is the right time for this kind of progressive reopening. And I think it's quite appropriate based on the modelling."
Business groups welcome lifting of capacity limits
Ford said on Friday that while the pandemic "isn't over yet," Ontarians will "be able to begin getting back to the lives we want" with the plan to lift restrictions set to provide individuals and businesses with "the certainty they need to make plans of their own."
His intention to lift all remaining restrictions is being well received by businesses, many of whom have been critical of the PC government for allowing full crowds at large sporting events and concerts while continuing to limit the capacity in restaurants and bars.
In a statement issued on Friday afternoon, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the announcement a "crucial step towards economic recovery" that finally "levels the playing field between big and small business."
"We hope this puts an end to government policies that favour large businesses, like big box stores or large sporting venues, over Ontario's small businesses," they say.
Ontario had previously intended to exit the final step of its reopening plan upon 75 per cent of eligible residents becoming fully vaccinated, but those plans were ultimately put on hold as the fourth wave of the pandemic took hold.
In a statement, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario accused the Ford government of "throwing caution to the wind" with its plan to do away with many public health measures early in the New Year.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner also criticized the plan in a subsequent statement.
"Doug Ford is putting the cart before the horse with today's announcement. Ford's plans to lift public health restrictions when vaccine certificates have only just begun and millions of kids remain ineligible for vaccines is worrisome, especially as we head into the winter months," he said. "Everyone wants to move on from the pandemic.
But why is Ford talking about ending vaccine certificates when the program has only just gotten off the ground? Today is the first day of the QR codes coming into effect."