The Ontario government is invoking its so-called “emergency brake” and placing both the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit and the Thunder Bay District Health Unit under the grey lockdown category in its tiered framework for COVID-19 restrictions.

The move means that the vast majority of non-essential businesses in both Simcoe-Muskoka and Thunder Bay will have to close as of 12:01 a.m. on Monday.

Social gatherings will also be prohibited, except among members of the same household.

Retail establishments are still permitted to operate but are limited to 25 per cent capacity unless they predominantly sell groceries, in which case they can have 50 per cent of their regular capacity.

The additional restrictions come amid a recent rise in cases in both health units.

Thunder Bay’s rolling seven-day average of new cases has more than doubled since this time last week to 38.8 and local officials are recommending that all schools move to remote-only instruction for the next two weeks.

Meanwhile, in Simcoe-Muskoka the rolling seven-day average of new cases is up 40 per cent from this time last week and now stands at 43.

The Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit is also reporting a total of 184 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, accounting for more than a third of all confirmed cases involving a variant of concern across Ontario.

“The main issue for me are the variants of concern of COVID-19. Here we have a substantial amount of the UK variant. It really commenced with a very large and tragic outbreak at Roberta Place that affected some other facilities as well but now we see it spreading in the community in greatly increasing numbers, probably triggering the rise we have seen in case counts overall,” Simcoe Muskoka's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner told CP24 on Friday afternoon. “We are acting early in that we are just seeing this now. I did not want to wait longer. I wanted to be prompt about it because if this is the beginning of a rise the longer you wait to act the worse it will be and the longer it will take to bring it under control.”

Both the Simcoe-Muskoka and Thunder Bay health units were placed in the red zone in the province’s framework back on Feb. 12 following the lifting of the stay-at-home order, allowing restaurants to serve a limited number of customers while permitting other businesses, like gyms and hair salons, to reopen.

But in recent days the indicators in both regions worsened.

Gardner said earlier this week that he was "very seriously considering" asking the province to place the region in lockdown due to a concerning spike in cases, which included a doubling of cases in Barrie.

Speaking with CP24 on Friday, he said that the district had seen a steady decline in cases from mid-January until last week and that the recent spike has him “quite concerned” about a potential third wave locally.

“I am certainly pleading with people in Simcoe-Muskoka and beyond actually to heed the message of staying home and to go out only for essential purposes. Even though it is not actually required now I am pleading with people to abide by that and going back into this lockdown status I think helps to strengthen the message,” he said.

The mayor of Bracebridge is frustrated with being placed under lockdown again.

"When you hear the Simcoe Muskoka Health Unit, keep in mind there are two regions within that health unit. And the conditions in those two regions are very different from one another," Mayor Graydon Smith told CP24 Friday evening.

"Many people feel in Muskoka that we have been unfairly hitched to what's going on somewhere else and that when decisions are made as to where we're placed within the framework, it's really not based on what is going on in our community. It's based on what's going on somewhere else."

Niagara moved from lockdown to red zone

The decision to impose additional public health restrictions in two regions with rising infections comes one day after the release of new modelling that warned that daily case counts are likely to rise to 2,500 a day by the end of March due to the presence of the new variants.

The modelling, however, suggested that the province can protect the gains it has made by being “nimble” and quickly taking action to address flare-ups.

"Quickly implementing stronger measures to interrupt transmission of COVID-19 is a key component of the government's plan to safely and gradually return public health regions to the framework," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said in a news release issued late Friday afternoon. "Due to data and local context and conditions in the Simcoe-Muskoka and Thunder Bay Districts, it was necessary to tighten public health measures in these regions to ensure the health and safety of the region at large and stop the spread of the virus."

A total of nine regions will move to different levels in the province’s tiered framework on Monday but Simcoe-Muskoka and Thunder Bay are the only health units being placed in more restrictive categories.

Niagara Region will move from the grey lockdown zone to the red zone while Chatham-Kent, Middlesex-London and Southwestern Public Health will all be placed in the less restrictive orange category.

The Ford government is also moving the Haldimand-Norfolk and Huron Perth public health units from orange to yellow and the Grey Bruce public health unit from yellow to green.