The Ford government has unveiled a new tiered system for COVID-19 restrictions that would allow most businesses to reopen albeit with earlier closing times, stricter capacity limits and mandatory symptom screenings.

The new system would place each of Ontario’s public health units into one of five different colour-coded categories based on the level of virus spread within their communities and the capacity of their hospitals.

Under the plan, the four regions that are currently in a modified version of Stage 2 – Toronto, Peel, Ottawa and York – would be joined by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit in the orange category, dubbed “Restrict” and would face “intermediate measures” to control the spread of COVID-19.

Premier Doug Ford says that Ottawa, Peel and York will all be formally moved into the orange category as of 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, allowing gyms to reopen and bars and restaurants to resume indoor dining.

Toronto, however, will remain in a modified version of Stage 2 until November 14 after Mayor John Tory asked “for a little more time,” Ford said.

“Number one is always prevention and this gives us a tool where we can really react and prevent the spread when we see it going into certain regions,” Ford said of the new framework during a press conference at Queen’s Park on Tuesday afternoon. “Before everyone would start reacting when we saw the numbers going through the roof but this will help us prevent that and help us put procedures and protocols into place before we even hit that level.”

The new framework will allow health officials to ramp up and roll back restrictions in given regions depending on the degree of virus spread.

For example, if things were to deteriorate further in any one of the orange communities the province would have the flexibility to move them into the red “control” category, which more closely resembles the modified version of Stage 2.

But at the same time, if the spread of the virus were to abate any one of the communities they could be moved into another category – yellow - with more relaxed restrictions.

The goal, officials say, is to eventually have all regions in the green “prevent” category, which essentially replaces Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan.

On Tuesday, Ford told reporters that his government is just trying to “strike a happy balance” and “get back to as normal as we can” as it deals with the very likely possibility that COVID-19 could be “here for a while.”

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, however, told CP24 in a subsequent interview that he believes the new framework is “hasty” and “short-sighted” given the fact that infections continue to increase, with the Ministry of Health reporting a record 1,050 new cases on Tuesday.

“The problem is we keep looking for a way to negotiate with this virus, to find a way to trigger some sort of middle ground when the virus doesn’t really allow that,” he said. “You know places that have successfully managed this pandemic have done so by decisively acting with restrictive measures that have persisted for long enough to ensure that you have seen a sustainable decline over a period of time and then they have reopened and they have been able to have the business community and their economy survive that. If you look at parts of Japan, Southeast Asia and New Zealand they have all been able to do that but there is no model or basis of a community elsewhere where you go back and forth from one week to next.”

Shuttered business can reopen as soon as this weekend

The release of the new framework comes after provincial health officials released new modelling which suggested that Ontario may have avoided the “worst case scenario” when it comes to the second wave of the pandemic but will still see extremely high daily case counts of 800 to 1,200 new infections per day throughout most of November.

It also comes on the heels of a letter released by the mayors and chairs from the 11 largest municipalities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, calling for the modified Stage 2 restrictions not to be extended past the initial 28-day period.

The plan will essentially allow shuttered bars, restaurants, gyms, casinos and movie theatres to reopen in York, Peel and Ottawa on Saturday and in Toronto one week later, even as case counts continue to rise.

But those businesses will face restrictions above and beyond the ones in place in regions of Ontario with lower levels of virus spread.

For a full list of the new restrictions follow this link.

Under the plan, restaurants and bars will again be allowed to serve customers indoors but they will be expected to stop serving liquor at 9 p.m. and close their doors at 10 p.m.

They will also have to seat no more than four people at a table and limit the overall capacity inside to no more than 50 people.

Gyms and sports facilities will also be permitted to reopen but they will have to abide by that same 50-person capacity limit and place limits on the amount of time that clients are allowed to workout.

Cinemas can reopen as well but the Ford government is revoking a previous tweak made by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health which allowed 50 people in each cinema and will now make that limit apply to each facility. That, of course, could spell trouble for large multiplexes which include dozens of individual screening rooms.

Meanwhile, in the regions in the yellow category – Halton, Durham, Hamilton and Brant – the rules are more relaxed but do represent an additional degree of restrictions than were in place previously.

Bars and restaurants in those regions will have to stop serving alcohol by 11 p.m. and close by midnight. They will also not be allowed to seat more than six people together but they will not face any additional capacity restrictions beyond the 100-person maximum already in place.

Gyms in the yellow zones will only be subject to the previous capacity limits which permitted 50 people per room rather than in the entire facility. They will, however, now be required to ensure that patrons are separated by at least three metres when using exercise equipment and keep fitness classes to 10 people or less when held indoors.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said that there was “an impact” from the stricter modified Stage 2 restrictions imposed in Peel, York, Toronto and Ottawa last month but he said that the medical officers of health in those four regions also agreed that the widespread closures had unintended negative consequences.

The idea behind the new system, he said, is to arm Ontarians with the information to make their own decisions based on their own risk tolerance.

“We are asking the public to be even more engaged on your personal risk assessment,” he said. “You are going to have to asses with each of these settings knowing what is there and what is in place what you are going to do as an individual and as a family to protect yourself because we want to get that decision making over to you.”

Positivity rate may have to surpass 10 per cent to trigger closures

The new framework proposed by the Ford government includes a series of specific thresholds that could justify moving a region into a given category, though officials say that not all of them necessarily need to be met to impose additional restrictions.

For example, the framework says that a positivity rate of more than 10 per cent or a weekly incidence rate of more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people could justify moving a given region from the orange category into the red category.

In order to move a region from the orange category into the less restrictive yellow category, the framework suggests that the positivity rate should dip below 2.5 per cent and the weekly incidence rate should be below 40 new infections per 100,000 people.

To put those numbers in context, Toronto currently has a positivity rate of 4.6 per cent and a weekly incidence rate of about 75 new infections for every 100,000 people.

Generally, officials say that regions will have to remain in a new category for at least 28 days upon being moved there.

They also say that officials will typically review the categories that each of Ontario’s 34 public health units are in every two weeks but can act sooner than that if they detect a “rapidly worsening trend.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon following Ford’s announcement, Toronto Mayor John Tory said that the framework “provides a path forward that will help us get to a situation where establishments can open their doors safely.”

“I have been clear throughout that I want restaurants and gyms to open safely and stay open safely – safely being the key word. I continue to hope that will be possible in the days ahead. I am pleased the province has taken account of our challenging local context by offering us some extra time,” he said.

It should be noted that under the framework strip clubs will continue to be prohibited from operating in all regions and personal care services that require the removal of a facemask will only be permitted in “green” regions.

Social gathering limits will also remain unchanged for all regions with a maximum of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, unless the event is taking place at a staffed-business in which case 50 people are allowed indoors and 100 outdoors.