Parts of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area will be placed under the red zone in the province’s tiered framework for COVID-19 restrictions as of Tuesday, allowing a wide swath of businesses to reopen despite mounting concerns over the presence of more infectious variants in the community.

The Ford government is lifting the stay-at-home order in 27 additional public health units as of 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 16 and moving the regions back into its tiered framework for COVID-19 restrictions.

Only one of those regions – Niagara – will be placed in the more restrictive grey lockdown category. In that category, retail businesses are allowed to reopen with strict capacity limits but most other things have to stay closed.

Another 11 of the regions will be placed one step down in the red zone as of next week, including Durham, Halton and Hamilton.

In those regions, virtually everything with the exception of movie theatres can reopen but there will be strict capacity limits that businesses will have to adhere to.

Restaurants and bars can serve up to 10 customers indoors at one time but must stop serving alcohol by 9 p.m. and close by 10 p.m.

Gyms are also permitted to reopen, so long as the number of people in indoor areas with weights and exercise machines is capped at 10.

Small social gatherings are allowed in red zones but there must be no more than five people indoors and 25 people outdoors.

Gyms and personal support services, like barber shops and nail salons, can also reopen but have to collect contact information from all patrons.

MORE: What is open and closed in my region

Officials have warned of late February surge in cases

The announcement from the Ford government on Friday afternoon comes less than a day after the head of the province’s science table warned that Ontario is likely to experience “a third wave and a third lockdown” if it lifts restrictions now with more infectious COVID-19 variants circulating in the community.

The stark warning from Dr. Adalsteinn Brown prompted one reporter to ask whether “he was missing something” in concluding that his presentation about the threat of coronavirus variant B.1.1.7 was “predicting a disaster.”

In response, Brown said “I don’t think you are missing anything” but acknowledged that “there are number of things that have to be weighed” in making decisions about public health restrictions.

“It’s not a wide open, rah-rah-rah let’s go party. There’s a lot of areas; Toronto, still in lockdown-grey, Peel still in lockdown-grey, York still in lockdown-grey,” Premier Doug Ford said of his government’s approach while visiting a Toronto residential and respite care centre earlier on Friday. “We’re doing a little bit of a balance and letting small businesses open cautiously, but again I stress, follow the guidelines carefully.”

The province’s rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has declined from a peak of nearly 3,300 back on Jan. 15 to 1,179 as of today.

But with officials predicting that the B.1.1.7 variant will become the dominant strain by March, there is increasing fear that the province could soon see a surge in cases just as it loosens restrictions.

In fact, modelling released by Brown on Thursday warned that case counts will begin to climb in late February if restrictions are lifted and will exceed 5,000 a day in late March under the “most likely scenario.”

“Dr. Brown is right – we are at an inflection point in the pandemic – where when the variants take hold, if cases remain high, we will be in trouble and the economic reopening the premier has proposed and plans on implementing may have to be held back. The difference between what Dr. Brown was saying and what (Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. (David) Williams has decided couldn’t be more stark,” Dr. Michael Warner, the medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital, told CP24 on Friday afternoon. “This whole thing doesn’t make sense to me. On Feb. 16 we are reopening schools in Toronto, York and Peel and on that same day the regions adjacent to those regions, Durham, Simcoe and Halton, will all be open for indoor dining, gyms, casinos bingo halls. How does that make any sense if we are trying to make sure that school reopening is safe?"

Ford has promised ‘emergency brake’ for local officials

The move to gradually reopen parts of the province has resulted in criticism from many public health experts and epidemiologists, including the head of the Ontario Medical Association who took to Twitter on Friday afternoon to call it a “huge gamble” that will likely leave “an exhausted, over-extended hospital sector” dealing with third wave of the pandemic.

But Ford has promised that local officials will have access to a so-called “emergency brake” that will allow them to quickly shut down their communities should case counts rise.

Speaking with CP24 on Friday afternoon, Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said that he believes the changes that will come to Halton Region when it officially enters the red zone “are relatively small compared to the capacity that will remain unused” at businesses.

Burton, nonetheless, said that he would ask people in neighbouring communities with higher rates of COVID-19 transmission not to visit Oakville businesses once they reopen and to instead “stay the hell home and don’t go out except for essential purposes.”

“This is not a reopening, it is only a little bit of relief and not the whole deal,” he said.

In a statement released late on Friday afternoon, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that the Ford government’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order in 27 more regions is “unconscionable.”

Horwath acknowledged that “no one like this lockdown” but said that keeping restrictions in place is “the only way to stop the more infectious variants from taking over and causing more devastation, and longer, deeper lockdowns.”

The stay-at-home order will remain in effect in Toronto, Peel, York and the North Bay Parry Sound District until at least Feb. 22.

Here is the regional breakdown:


  • Niagara Region Public Health


  • Chatham-Kent Public Health;
  • City of Hamilton Public Health Services;
  • Durham Region Health Department;
  • Halton Region Public Health;
  • Middlesex-London Health Unit;
  • Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services;
  • Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit;
  • Southwestern Public Health;
  • Thunder Bay District Health Unit;
  • Wellington-Dufferin Guelph Public Health; and
  • Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.


  • Brant County Health Unit;
  • Eastern Ontario Health Unit;
  • Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit;
  • Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit;
  • Huron Perth Public Health;
  • Lambton Public Health;
  • Ottawa Public Health;
  • Porcupine Health Unit; and
  • Public Health Sudbury and Districts.


  • Algoma Public Health;
  • Grey Bruce Health Unit;
  • Northwestern Health Unit; and
  • Peterborough Public Health.


  • Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit; and
  • Timiskaming Health Unit.