The Ontario government is implementing a “provincewide emergency brake” amid surging COVID-19 case numbers and record hospitalizations but it is stopping short of the stay-at-home order that members of its science table say is needed to get transmission under control.

The move, which will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday and remain in place for at least four weeks, will force all restaurants across the province to close for in-person dining. That means that patios, which were just permitted to reopen in Toronto and Peel on March 22, will be shut down once again.

Gyms will also have to close in the regions outside of the hotspots where they were permitted to operate and outdoor fitness classes, which were allowed to resume in Toronto this week, will no longer be permitted.

Day camps will be cancelled as well.

Essential stores will remain open at 50 per cent capacity and non-essential retail can operate at 25 per cent capacity.

“The millions of additional vaccines we need are on the horizon, they are weeks away and that is how we know things will get better very, very soon. But the bottom line is we need more time. We need more time for our vaccine program to take hold,” Premier Doug Ford said in making the announcement. “We need more runway to allow our vaccines rollout to get where we need it and that means we need to take action now.”

The new restrictions come after intensive care admissions at Ontario hospitals reached a new high today, with at least 433 COVID-19 patients currently in the ICU.

Ontario has also reported more than 2,000 new infections for the past seven consecutive days, with the seven-day average of new cases hitting 2,316 on Wednesday.

This morning the province’s science table released new modelling which suggested that daily case counts could dip back down to between 1,000 and 1,500 per day by the end of April with a four-week stay-at-home order but the restrictions announced by the Ford government stop short of that.

“We are not going to be producing a stay-at-home order because we saw that last time it had a tremendous ill effect on both children and adults,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said following the announcement. “Especially with the warmer weather coming we want people to go outside and enjoy the outdoors assuming that everyone continues to follow the public health safety precautions.”

Changes in lockdown zones are more subtle

The new restrictions will result in significant changes for regions that were not already in the lockdown level of the province’s framework, including Halton, York and Durham.

But the changes will be more subtle for the regions that were already under some form of lockdown, like Toronto, Peel and Hamilton.

The restrictions mean that barbershops, hair salons, and other personal care services that were supposed to reopen in lockdown zones on April 12 will remain shuttered.

Those regions will also see the maximum allowable outdoor gathering size lowered from 10 to five. Indoor gatherings with people outside your household will continue to be prohibited.

Weddings, funerals and other religious services, meanwhile, will be capped at 15 per cent of regular indoor capacity, though that was already the case in lockdown zones.

“We could put all the restrictions in the world but we need the help of the people too,” Ford said on Thursday afternoon when question on why his government isn’t going further. “I know it is difficult the last year, it is painful for everyone and it has hurt a lot of people but we have to do it and I am convinced 100 per cent that if we don’t do it we will be in deep, deep trouble. We would see the ICUs get lout of control, we would see the deaths get out of control.”

ICU doctors 'ringing the alarm bell'

Ford’s announcement on Thursday afternoon came hours after a group of hundreds of doctors working in Ontario's intensive care units warned the province about the consequences of not implementing tough measures now.

In a joint statement, the doctors said that the “next few days and weeks matter” and that previous framework drawn up by the Ford government won’t be enough to account for the increased transmissibility and hospitalization rates associated with the B.1.1.7. variant.

"Once overwhelmed, we could be forced to triage the critically ill, deciding who gets ICU care and a chance to survive, and who receives palliative care and dies. Patients who we can save today will not have access to life-saving treatment under a triage scenario," the statement read. “As ICU doctors, we are the last line of defence, and we are ringing the alarm bell. Please hear it. We implore you to act now."

Dr. Kali Barrett, a critical care physician at University Health Network and one of the doctors who signed the statement, said she is disappointed with the shutdown announced Thursday.

"I think the measures that they've enacted are, unfortunately, they're relying on the same framework that's doomed to fail. We've been in great lockdown in Toronto for months now. And even under those measures, the (variants of concern), which is much more infectious and much more deadly, continued to climb," she said in an interview with CP24 Tonight.

"So, expanding measures that are failing in the areas where there's the highest rate of growth is really not going to work across the province."

Barrett said the province cannot vaccinate its way out of the third wave.

"Had there been enough vaccine in our country in our provinces several months ago, while the case counts were lower, we maybe could have avoided this third wave," she said.

"We can hopefully prevent further transmission in areas where we know there's lots of transmission happening and do that by very targeted vaccination campaigns. But we are not going to vaccinate our way out of a third wave. There's just not enough time. We're already on our way up the slope."

Dr. Brooks Fallis, the former head of critical care at William Osler Health System, said the province needs a more aggressive action than what is about to be implemented on Saturday, including a short closure of schools, which he believes are significant drivers of the third wave.

"I think we have to look at what the word lockdown or shutdown or whatever you want to call it is actually telling us," Fallis told CP24 Tonight.

"What did we really change? So, we dropped outdoor dining, but it's been quite cold. I don't think a lot of people have been dining outdoors so far. We've got rapid exponential growth in Toronto, Peel, Halton, Hamilton. Growth happening in Ottawa. If you're in the grey zone already and it's rising exponentially, what did we achieve?"

Tory welcomes new restrictions

COVID-19 infections have been on the upswing in Ontario for weeks now thanks in large part to the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which now accounts for more than 67 per cent of all new cases.

The Ford government had, however, been loosening restrictions of late.

During a subsequent news conference on Thursday, Mayor John Tory called implementing the so-called emergency brake now the right thing to do.

He added that we “cannot logically, or sensibly conclude that the status quo was a viable option” given the increasing number of COVID-19 patients requiring care in an ICU.

But in a separate interview with CP24 York Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Karim Kurji said he believes Ford succumbed to “pressure” from some medical experts, who were calling for tougher restrictions.

Kurji, who has long opposed the widespread closure of businesses, said he would have liked to see more “targeted interventions” instead.

“Frankly four weeks from now I am not optimistic that our numbers will have gone down. I don’t think the ICU problem is going to be solved just through whatever we have done in terms of shutdowns. I hope it is but I think the answer here is personal responsibility as much as possible plus vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate,” he said.

These are the new restrictions being implemented as part of the provincewide shutdown:

  • Prohibiting indoor organized public events and social gatherings and limiting the capacity for outdoor organized public events or social gatherings to a 5-person maximum, except for gatherings with members of the same household (the people you live with) or gatherings of members of one household and one other person from another household who lives alone.
  • Restricting in-person shopping in all retail settings, including a 50 per cent capacity limit for supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores, indoor farmers’ markets, other stores that primarily sell food and pharmacies, and 25 per cent for all other retail including big box stores, along with other public health and workplace safety measures;
  • Prohibiting personal care services;
  • Prohibiting indoor and outdoor dining. Restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments will be permitted to operate by take-out, drive-through, and delivery only;
  • Prohibiting the use of facilities for indoor or outdoor sports and recreational fitness (e.g., gyms) with very limited exceptions;
  • Requiring day camps to close; and,
  • Limiting capacity at weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites or ceremonies to 15 per cent occupancy per room indoors, and to the number of individuals that can maintain two metres of physical distance outdoors. This does not include social gatherings associated with these services such as receptions, which are not permitted indoors and are limited to five people outdoors.