Premier Doug Ford says his government plans to lift capacity limits in indoor settings ahead of schedule and will scrap the province’s proof-of-vaccination system on March 1.

Speaking at a news conference at Queen’s Park on Monday, Ford announced that starting Feb. 17, capacity limits will be lifted in all public settings where proof of vaccination is required, including restaurants, gyms, and cinemas.

The change effectively moves up the second stage of the province’s reopening plan, originally scheduled for Feb. 21, by four days.

Seating capacity at sports arenas, concert venues, and theatres will be increased to 50 per cent on Thursday and the province will also begin allowing larger social gatherings of 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

Capacity limits in other indoor public settings, including grocery stores, pharmacies, retail stores, and malls, will be maintained or increased to the number of people who can stay two metres apart.

The province also confirmed Monday that it will be expanding booster dose eligibility to youth aged 12 to 17 starting at 8 a.m. on Feb. 18.

In two weeks, on March 1, the province said remaining capacity limits will be removed in all indoor settings and the government will no longer require people to show proof of vaccination to enter non-essential businesses. Businesses may still choose to require proof of vaccination, the province said in a news release issued Monday.

Masking rules will remain in effect but the province said a specific timeline for lifting masking mandates will be "communicated at a later date.”

The province said any further restrictions will now fall to local public health units that can respond "based on local context and conditions."

“Thanks to the efforts of Ontarians to help blunt the transmission of Omicron, our health care indicators suggest a general improvement in the COVID-19 situation in the province," Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said in a news release.

“We are now in a position to lift more public health measures, but it is important to stay vigilant, as we don’t want to cause any further disruption to people’s everyday lives. We must continue to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in our communities by following the measures in place and by vaccinating those who have not yet received their doses.”

Ontario’s vaccine certificate system, which requires people to show proof that they have received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine before entering some non-essential businesses, was first implemented in September.

Proof-of-vaccination will still be required for visitors at Ontario's long-term care facilities, Ford confirmed.

Other provinces have already dropped vaccine mandates for restaurants, gyms, and other businesses, including Saskatchewan, which officially scrapped the program today.

Ford said the decision to implement these public health measures was difficult but "absolutely necessary."

"We're moving in this direction because it's safe to do so," Ford said.

The premier was quick to comment that his decision to speed up reopening plans was not motivated by the border blockade in Windsor or protesters who have occupied Ottawa for more than two weeks.

"Today's announcement is not because of what's happening in Ottawa, or Windsor, but despite it," Ford said. 

"To those of you who are there with a sole objective of causing disruption and chaos, there will be serious consequences for this lawless activity. We will continue to raise the consequences against those who are holding millions of jobs and people hostage."

Ford said Ontario has faced "one of the most divisive times in our history."

"All of it has polarized us in a way that we could have never imagined. I've experienced this in my own family. It's been one of the hardest things my family and I have ever gone through," he said. 

"But for all of this, I can still take comfort in knowing that there remains so much that unites us. There's so much that still holds us together. And I take comfort in knowing that this awful pandemic will soon be behind us."


Easing restrictions a 'positive step toward recovery,' CFIB says

The province's accelerated reopening plan was welcome news to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which released a statement shortly after this morning's news conference.

"We are pleased the Ontario government has announced it will lift many of the remaining COVID-19-related business restrictions sooner than initially planned. This is a positive step toward recovery," the statement read. 

"We urge the Ontario government to back up today’s announcement with a stay-open plan to provide clarity and certainty as we continue to manage the pandemic. This would include ensuring there is adequate healthcare capacity to avoid any renewed restrictions or business closures in the future." 

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath slammed the timing of the premier's decision to eliminate vaccine certificates, accusing Ford of "caving" to the protesters. 

"It was really interesting to watch this morning how defensive the premier was," Horwath said at a news conference in Windsor on Monday morning.

"He put it straight up in his remarks that it wasn't about coddling these anti-vaxxers or these occupiers. But I have to say if it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, certainly it is a duck."


Jüni: Data supports eliminating vaccine certificates

Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of the province's Science Advisory Table. said the available data supports lifting vaccine certificate requirements in March.

"When we look at test positivity and our signal of viral RNA in the wastewater, we are looking good and we continue to look good." he told CP24 on Monday afternoon.

"Right now we are certainly in a much better position than many places."

He said the vaccine certificate program as it currently stands is "inconsistent with science."

"The problem with the vaccine certificates is that if we would stick to a two-dose certificate, it doesn't make much of a difference in terms of transmission. So either we make it a three-dose certificate, which is very challenging... or we say, 'Look, we know it is now inconsistent, it is different than a few months ago... and therefore we lift it," Jüni said.

"So I think it is right to do that in March and just deal with it for what it is. It is a tool and we might need it again in the future."