Most business across York Region reopened this morning as the COVID-19 hotspot was formally placed in the red zone of Ontario’s tiered system for public health restrictions.

York Region has been under some form of a lockdown since Dec. 14 but a number of restrictions were lifted as of midnight, allowing retail stores to reopen and bars and restaurants to serve up to 10 customers at a time indoors.

A wide swath of other businesses, including gyms and hair salons, are also permitted to operate in red zones with restrictions.

The gradual reopening of York comes with both Toronto and Peel Region remaining under a stay-at-home order and strict lockdown until at least March 8. Public health officials in those communities have asked for the additional restrictions due to concerns around the increased infectiousness of new COVID-19 variants.

“We have probably a long run at looking at these variants since we had a large number of variants early January and everyday we look at them very carefully and we are not convinced there is going to be any explosive growth at this point in time,” York Region Medical Officer of Health Dr. Karim Kurji told CP24 on Monday morning. “So we are keeping a very close eye on the variant and our cases have continued to decline, our outbreaks in institutions have continued to decline given the vaccination efforts we have done. I think this is really the beginning of the recovery process for our community.”

Public health officials have repeatedly warned that the presence of the new variants in the community could drive an exponential growth in new COVID-19 cases.

In fact modelling released earlier this month by Ontario’s science table suggested that case counts will begin rising again inn late February as the new B.1.1.7 variant that first originated in the United Kingdom becomes dominant and could surpass 5,000 a day by the end of March in “the most likely scenario.”

A Public Health Ontario team also concluded B.1.1.7 will be dominant in the GTA sometime before the end of February.

In an interview with CP24 on Monday morning, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said that the lifting of some restrictions will allow some businesses to “regain some of the economic activity that they have lost” out on over the last three months.

But he said that he is calling on to Kurji to issue Section 22 orders to reduce the maximum allowable gathering size from five to zero, as is the case in Toronto and Peel.

He said that he would also like to see the maximum allowed capacity in grocery stores, big box retailers and shopping malls brought in alignment with the standard for communities under a lockdown for “at least the next few weeks.”

“This is about getting out, doing what you need to do and really going back home,” Scarpitti said.

Vaughan’s mayor doesn’t want additional restrictions

While Scarpitti has called for some additional restrictions as part of York’s move into the red zone, Kurji has so far declined to use his powers to make those changes.

Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua also told CP24 on Monday afternoon that he doesn’t believe additional restrictions are required at this point in time, even with the variants circulating.

“At the end of the day it is all about risk assessment and if your medical officer of health has done a risk assessment that states we have to move to a zone then you have to trust that individual,” he said. “If you do enter into an area of cherry-picking and accepting or rejecting the medical officer of health’s advice the system breaks down."

York Region has consistently had among the highest case counts in Ontario but the Ford government ultimately decided to place it in the red zone of its framework after Kurji lobbied for the designation.

At the time of the announcement last week, the weekly incidence rate in York per capita actually exceeded that of Toronto - 77.38 compared to 72.86.

In an interview with CP24 on Monday morning, Toronto Mayor John Tory conceded that he is concerned about residents flocking to York to access businesses that remain shuttered here. But he said that he is hopeful that people “will understand that moving either way unless it is essential to go to work is really just not going to help” keep case counts and allow for the eventual reopening of Toronto.

“If people in York stick to their region to work, play and to shop and if people in Toronto stick to their region to work if necessary and you known do a little exercise and shop very carefully and selectively then there is reason to believe we will see spread continue to go down. But that is what we have to watch very carefully over the next few days,” he said.