Toronto and Peel Region will remain under a stay-at-home order for at least another two weeks but some restrictions will be eased in York Region next week as it enters the red zone of the province’s reopening framework, the province announced Friday.

At the request of the medical officers of health in both Peel Region and Toronto, strict lockdown measures will be maintained in the two COVID-19 hot spots until at least March 8, the Ford government says.

A stay-at-home order will also remain in effect for the North Bay-Parry Sound District Health Unit.

While those three regions will not be rejoining the province’s colour-coded reopening framework, York Region will be placed in the red or “control” zone of the framework on Monday. This is despite the fact that the region’s weekly incident rate per capita is actually higher than Toronto’s – 77.38 compared to 72.86. Peel’s weekly incidence rate is the highest in Ontario at 100.7 new infections per 100,000 residents, per week.

“We really rely on people on the ground, the local medical officers. They know their area better than anyone and then they converse with the chief medical officer (Dr. David Williams). There has to be some sort of trust in these relationships,” Premier Doug Ford said in explaining the seemingly different standard on Friday.

Over the past week, York Region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Karim Kurji, and local mayors had repeatedly requested that the region enter the red zone, which allows indoor dining to resume and gyms and hair salons to reopen with reduced capacity.

Outdoor gatherings of no more than 25 people and indoor gatherings of no more than five are also permitted in the red zone. Weddings and religious services can resume with 30 per cent indoor capacity and no more than 100 people outdoors.

Speaking with CP24 following the announcement, Kurji called it “a message of hope for our residents” but warned those living in the region to “remain vigilant” and continue to “stay home as much as possible.”

Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua also welcomed the news in a subsequent interview with CP24.

“I think we presented a very smart case as to the reason why we should be in the red zone. I am very glad that the premier and his team have listened to Dr. Kurji, our medical officer of health here in York Region. And I think I also want to take this opportunity to thank the residents of York Region and the City of Vaughan for being very disciplined, focused and determined to move forward,” he said. “What we have witnessed here in the city of Vaughan and in York Region has been a decline in numbers and all indicators show quite clearly that we are moving in the right direction.”

Officials in Peel and Toronto had asked to remain under lockdown

Most regions of the province have transitioned back to the framework over the past two weeks following declining COVID-19 case counts, deaths, and hospitalizations.

But the head of Ontario’s science table has warned that case counts could begin to climb again as soon as late February due to the presence of more infectious variants in the community.

“Our case rates have been declining. However, there is a bigger picture here and that is those variants of concern,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told CP24 on Friday. “We have 60 confirmed here in Peel and another 250 that are suspected and we know that the new variants are highly transmissible. I think the key thing here is that we do what is right when the timing is right. The worst thing that could happen is that the business reopen next week and then have to close back down again at the end of March or the beginning of April.”

In addition to York Region being placed in the red zone, the province also announced on Friday that Lambton Public Health will be moved from the orange to red zone “as a result worsening public health trends in the region.”

Niagara Region remains the only part of Ontario in the grey zone, which is the most restrictive level in the framework.

In the grey zone of the province's updated framework, all retail stores, including "non-essential" shops, can reopen to customers with just 25 per cent of their regular indoor capacity. This now also applies to big box stores that do not primarily sell groceries or other essential items. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and convenience stores can all operate at 50 per cent capacity in the grey zone.

Speaking with reporters at a press conference earlier in the day, Ford conceded that the new variants are “scary” but insisted that his government is not “reopening” the province, even as it allows many business to operate again.

“The facts are Toronto, Peel and North Bay are going to be under complete lockdown for the next couple weeks and if the mayors and the medical officers of health come to Dr. Williams and say that we want to lock down further we will,” Ford said.

Concerns over region hopping

Given the close proximity of regions in the GTA, many people have expressed concerns about the possibility of Toronto and Peel Region residents visiting other cities with fewer restrictions.

When asked about the possibility of "region-hopping" earlier this week, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said she is hopeful that won’t happen.

“I think that the last time there was a concern around this was pre-Christmas, where as I recall York Region still had open shopping malls open and Toronto and Peel didn't. So I think people were doing their shopping, they were excited for Christmas. In a way, it was understandable (but) unfortunate that they did travel,” she said.

“I am very much hoping that now it's not a holiday period, people understand that all these measures have had a very promising effect but if we let loose, we are going to see another pandemic wave, and possibly worse, now with the variants.”

The province has said their reopening strategy involves an "emergency brake" that would allow Williams to immediately transition a region back into lockdown if cases begin to surge.

But Yaffe conceded earlier this week that the province's public health measures table had not yet provided specifics about when that emergency brake should be triggered.