The Ford government has put its plans to lift the capacity limits in a number of high-risk settings on hold amid a recent rise in COVID-19 case counts.

The capacity limits that apply to food or drink establishments with dance facilities, including nightclubs and wedding venues, as well as strip clubs and bathhouses were supposed to be lifted on Monday provided that the venues require proof of vaccination.

But in a news release issued on Wednesday afternoon, the Ontario government confirmed that the restrictions will remain in effect for the time being “out of an abundance of caution.”

The pause comes one day after Health Minister Christine Elliott insisted that Ontario would “stay the course” with its plan to lift all remaining public health restrictions by March, despite a increase in transmission that now has counts doubling every 15 days.

Speaking with reporters during a briefing following Wednesday afternoon’s announcement, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said that the government is making a “data driven” decision to exercise caution right now.

Moore, however, said that Ontarians should not fear a return to the provincewide lockdowns that were in effect last winter and spring, even as cases counts continue to rise.

Ontario’s rolling seven-day average of new cases has risen more than 32 per cent over the last week and now stands at 502.

“Some people will look at the cup and say it is half empty but I am saying it is half full,” Moore said. “At a provincial level I honestly don’t see us stepping backwards. It has always been my advice to government that if we have to we will pause but we won’t take steps backwards. So I want Ontarians to hear my commitment that we will keep our schools open, our colleges and universities open and that we won’t take a step backwards. We may have to at a regional level. But I do believe at a provincial level we are going to stay where we are and this battle against this fast and furious foe will be fought at a regional level.”

Moore expects case counts to continue to rise

Ontario’s plan to gradually lift all remaining public health restrictions currently calls for the vaccine requirements in certain low-risk settings, like bars and restaurants, to be lifted starting on Jan. 15.

Moore would not say whether the decision to pause the lifting of capacity limits in some high-risk settings would affect that timeline, only saying that he would advise the government using the “best data and analysis of the risk for Ontarians” at that time.

In the meantime, he said that he expects Ontario will “continue to see a rise in cases” over the coming weeks and months but he said that is his hope that it will “ebb and flow” and not place significant pressure on the health-care system.

Ontario’s decision to pause the lifting of capacity limits in nightclubs, strip clubs, bathhouses and some wedding venues comes on the heels of the scientific director for the province’s science table warning that some “small changes” might need to be made in order to get rising case counts under control.

Speaking to CP24 Wednesday, Dr. Peter Jüni said pausing the lifting of capacity limits in more settings is the right step as the province needs to stabilize the situation.

"The point now is that our case numbers are currently doubling every 15 days, meaning the average of today your 560 per day on average could become roughly 1,100 in about 15 days, meaning we would like to leave this trajectory and flatten the curve again. And therefore, it makes perfect sense if you already accelerate not to step on the gas pedal and therefore not to lift the last capacity limits," Jüni said.

In an interview with CP24 on Wednesday, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie welcomed the pause.

She said that while hospitalization numbers remain stable in Peel Region, its reproductive number is now back above one, pointing to a worsening pandemic.

“I just want to reassure people that, you know, while things have improved when we see a slight uptick, we do get nervous,” she said. “We are cautious and we want you to continue following the advice of public health and that means continuing to wear your mask and keeping a safe distance between other people. You know when times were good we may have relaxed some of our public health protocols and gotten too familiar with our friends and family but it's now time once again to practice those public health protocols, especially masking indoors.”

The current restrictions in place cap the indoor capacity of all nightclubs and bathhouses at 25 per cent or 250 patrons, whichever is less. While there is no set capacity limit for strip clubs, the establishments must limit their number of patrons to ensure a physical distance of at least two metres between all groups.

Moore says that he will review the decision to pause the lifting of capacity limits for the high-risk settings in mid-December.

'This is absolute nonsense'

Wednesday's announcement has left many businesses frustrated. Charles Khabouth, the chief executive officer and founder of Ink Entertainment Group, said he is exhausted and tired.

"They've asked us not to let anybody in unless they're vaccinated. Now you can go see a game like myself last week. Thousands of people jumping up and down, screaming. No one was wearing masks, but now, they don't want to let clubs and certain venues open," Khabouth said.

"You can go and watch a game with 20,000 people screaming. This is absolute nonsense. I'm so exhausted and tired. And it's really starting to show. We just hired another 200 to 300 people to start next week. And bought uniforms started training. And now we're on pause again."

Roxy Zapala, the owner and creative director of Art of Celebrations, said she was looking forward to capacity limits being dropped. But, with the pause, Zapala said she now needs to pivot again.

"It's been happening on and off for the last year and a half, almost two years that we've been seeing changes," she said. "We were really excited and happy to see that we're going to be going into full-blown event. And unfortunately, that's been kind of shut down."

"We have to make sure that we let our couples know that we have to go back to the 25 per cent indoor capacity."

Ryan Mallough with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said many nightlife establishments have been anticipating full capacity reopening for weeks.

"As recently as yesterday, it seemed like it was going to get the green light to go ahead. And then, with the flip of a switch, it's a delay. And I know the government says four weeks, but I'm not sure anybody is particularly confident that it's only going to be four weeks based on any other pause that we've experienced throughout the pandemic," he said.

Mallough added that many of the businesses affected by the pause are not getting any financial subsidies.

"There are no provincial programs. The criteria for the federal programs just changed and are much harder to access. So, these businesses are left without any support and without a timeline about when they're going to be able to get back to it."