A slew of businesses will be given the green light to reopen in three regions of Ontario this week as officials gradually transition each area of the province back into the Ford government's five-tiered, colour-coded reopening framework.

As of 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, the province's stay-at-home order will be lifted for three public health units in eastern Ontario, including Hastings Prince Edward Public Health; Kingston, Frontenac, and Lennox & Addington Public Health; and Renfrew County Public Health.

The three regions will be moved to the province's green or "prevent" zone, which will allow businesses, including all retail shops, hair salons, restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theatres to reopen, and private indoor gatherings to resume.

With the exception of Toronto, Peel Region, and York Region, the Ford government's stay-at-home order will be lifted for the remaining 28 public health units on Feb.16, at which point the regions will subsequently be placed in the appropriate colour-coded category in the reopening framework.

For the province's three COVID-19 hot spots, restrictions will not be eased until at least Feb. 22.

The decision on whether to lift restrictions will be "subject to final review of the trends and public health indicators," Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said at a news conference on Monday.

The move comes as highly-infectious coronavirus variants are appearing in smaller, more remote areas of the province.

"In Timiskaming Health Unit, a confirmed COVID-19 test has screened positive for a possible variant of concern. In North Bay, the public health unit has identified a COVID-19 cluster with one test returning a preliminary confirmation of a variant of concern," Elliott said.

"I know there were some reports over the weekend of Timiskaming moving back to the framework this week, however with these dangerous variants potentially circulating in these communities, now is not the time to roll back public health measures. This decision is supported by the local medical officers of health."

Provincial officials did not supply any criteria Monday that will be used to determine which of the five tiers each of the 31 other public health regions of Ontario would be placed in.

"I know that many areas are wanting to know where they are going to be. Whether they are going to go back to green or where they are in the framework that we've already set up. But we need to watch it very carefully and we need to get the numbers down in our hospitals. In some parts of the province, the numbers are still very, very high," Elliott said.

"And with the variants of concern, we also want to see, for example in North Bay and Timiskaming, what's happening in those units, how quickly this variant is going to spread, because the health and safety of all Ontarians is our priority and the variants of concern can increase the rates exponentially. So that's why we want to wait a week."

Further loosening of public health measures for any region of Ontario will be restricted for at least 28 days after the last public health unit returns to the reopening framework.

All retailers can open in grey zones

While the framework remains relatively unchanged from when it was first announced by the province last year, all types of retailers, including ones deemed to be non-essential, will now be permitted to open in regions in the grey or "lockdown" zone.

Pharmacies, convenience stores and stores that primarily sell groceries can operate in grey zones with 50 per cent of regular indoor capacity while all other retailers, including big box stores, can operate at 25 per cent capacity.

"We are not out of the woods yet and I'm still concerned about these variants," Premier Doug Ford said at Queen's Park on Monday. "If we see the numbers spike again, we are prepared to take further action as necessary."

The province said it has an "emergency brake system" in place that will allow officials to take "immediate action" if there is a rapid acceleration of COVID-19 transmission in a given region.

The chief medical officer of health can immediately move a region into the lockdown zone to slow transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“While we are seeing our numbers trend in the right direction, our situation remains precarious as the variants of concern remain a serious risk,” Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said in a news release.

“This is not a re-opening or a ‘return to normal’ and we must continue to limit close contact to our immediate households and stay at home except for essential reasons.”

Officials said the provincial state of emergency declared last month will not be renewed and is set to expire on Tuesday.

Ontario has been in lockdown since Boxing Day, and on Jan. 12, the province declared a second state of emergency over rising cases of COVID-19.

A provincewide stay-at-home order also prohibited people from going out except for essential purposes, such as exercising, attending medical appointments, or buying groceries.

The easing of restrictions comes as in-person learning resumes across the province. Students throughout Ontario, with the exception of Toronto, Peel, and York, were back in the classroom today following a nearly six-week pause on in-person instruction due to rising COVID-19 case counts.

Williams had previously said he would like to see daily cases in the province fall below 1,000 per day before relaxing any measures. The province has reported between 1,000 to 1,600 cases per day over the past week.

University Health Network infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who also sits on the province's COVID-19 vaccine task force, said the reopening must be timed carefully this time around, as we risk increasing the average person’s daily contacts just as remaining schools reopen, and more transmissible coronavirus variants of concern become more prevalent in Ontario.

“I think it’s very reasonable for the kids to be in school for a little bit before we take those gradual next steps in reopening.”

Re-opening all retail a 'small but positive step:' CFIB

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called today's announcement "a small, but positive step," adding that thousands of small businesses will still not be able to reopen later this month.

"Small retailers will breathe a sigh of relief as Ontario will soon allow all retail businesses to reopen to in-person sales in the next few weeks, including at 25 per cent of capacity in grey zones," the statement read.

"This will finally end the bizarre and ineffective Ontario-only policy of allowing big box stores to sell in-person while barring small firms from doing the same."

The statement notes that today's news will not spark much excitement from many businesses in Toronto, Peel Region, and York Region.

"Today's announcement will mean that they will move from a province-wide lockdown to a regional lockdown on February 22, 2021. This is deeply unfair and will mean that in-person dining, personal services like hair and nail care, and gyms will remain in full lockdown with no end in sight," the statement read.

“CFIB will continue to advocate for a safe pathway for all small firms to reopen to in-person sales. We strongly urge government to move the hard caps for sectors like gyms, salons, events and restaurants to a capacity limit or other measures that better reflect their work and space.”

Toronto transitioning 'from one pandemic to another'

Mayor John Tory said he welcomes a plan for the gradual reopening of the city "when the time comes" but stopped short of saying he supports removing some restrictions on Feb. 22.

"Our medical experts who have guided us well through uncharted waters, they say these variants are the real thing and that means great care and caution as we even consider the right time to reopen here in a city of three million people," the mayor said.

"I'm confident that if things are not as they should be as we arrive at any particular date going forward, that the premier as he has will take that into account and do what is best for public health."

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, also would not directly say whether she wants to see more retailers reopen to in-person shopping later this month.

"Today we are in a transition from one pandemic to another, a transition to a new pandemic. It was inevitable the variants of concern would emerge in Toronto," she told reporters on Monday.

"We are in a position of great uncertainty with respect to variants. But what we know is alarming. I understand the value of preparing for the time we can lift restrictions. From a public health perspective in Toronto, that time is not now."

She said if variants of concern become the dominant strain in Toronto, there is "an even greater likelihood" that case counts will rise given their increased transmissibility

"Decisions to reopen do not come with guarantees except that cases of COVID-19 will rise when we interact again more frequently. We've seen this before. There is no reason to believe it will be different this time. In fact, there is probably less," she added.

"I think it is difficult to talk about particular timelines and I would encourage people not to look necessarily at certain timelines. We know that what we want to see is ongoing reduced transmission of virus and we would like to see that as low as possible."