Ontario is introducing lower capacity and gathering limits while also ordering bars and restaurants to close early each night amid the rapid spread of a new variant that Premier Doug Ford says is “unlike anything we have ever seen.”

The new restrictions will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday.

According to a news release, a wide range of settings will have to adhere to a 50 per cent capacity limit, including restaurants, bars, retailers, shopping malls, gyms and personal care businesses like hair salons.

The lower capacity limits will not apply to any facility that is being used for a wedding, a funeral or a religious service for now.

Meanwhile, the province is reinstating the lower gathering limits that it used to attempt to control the spread of the virus earlier in the pandemic.

Ford told reporters during a Friday afternoon news conference that doing so ahead of the holiday season was an “extremely, extremely difficult” decision to make but was necessary given the spread of the Omicron variant and the very real threat it poses to Ontario’s health-care system.

Social gatherings will now be capped at 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, down from 25 people indoors and up to 100 outdoors.

“I know you are tired,” Ford said. “Over the last 20 months you have been asked to sacrifice so much. We’ve all dug so deep and now we need to dig a little deeper. We’ll get through this.”

The new restrictions comes one day after the release of new modelling which warned that the province could see more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases per day by January without immediate indoor capacity restrictions and a rapid expansion of the third dose rollout.   

Earlier on Friday sources told CTV News Toronto the government had considered reverting to a previous stage in its reopening plan due to the threat posed by Omicron but ultimately opted for lower capacity limits rather than outright closures.

In addition to the lower capacity limits, bars and restaurants, meeting and event spaces and strip clubs will be ordered to stop serving alcohol by 10 p.m. each night and to close entirely by 11 p.m.

The number of people that can be accommodated at one table in those establishments will also be capped at 10 and patrons will be required to remain seated at all times.

The Ford government is also prohibiting the consumption of food and drink in large entertainment venues, casinos and bingo halls to ensure that patrons remain masked.

“I know that this is not the situation that any of us wanted to be in, especially during the holiday season. But it is clear that Omicron will not take a holiday,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters at Queen’s Park “These measures will give us time to continue to vaccinate more Ontarians with booster doses that provide an additional layer of protection against Omicron.”

Case counts could 6,000 by this weekend

The restrictions announced on Friday afternoon represent a pivot of sorts from earlier this week when Ford announced that large venues, like the Scotiabank Arena, would have to operate at 50 per cent capacity but rejected a suggestion that the same should be done for bars and restaurants, likening it to “comparing apples and bananas.”

However since then case growth has accelerated significantly with the Ontario science advisory table now estimating that Omicron cases are doubling every 2.8 days.

Sources have also told CTV News Toronto that the Ford government internally believes that daily case counts could hit 6,000 as soon as this weekend.

The current single day high throughout the entire pandemic occurred during the height of the third wave on April 15 when Ontario reported 4,812 new cases.

“This is moving rapidly and there could be possible changes in another week,” Ford said when asked why his government waited to take further action. “It could change as we see these numbers accelerate and I am being upfront with people these numbers will accelerate.”

Some say government isn’t doing enough

Dr. Peter Juni, who is the scientific director of the science table, has previously said that Ontarians will need to reduce their contacts by 50 per cent on average in order to blunt the impact of this wave and prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed.

At this point only time will tell whether the restrictions announced on Friday will be sufficient, however in an interview with CP24 Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said that the government should have done more to get transmission under control in the wake of modelling that suggested ICU occupancy could reach “unsustainable levels” as soon as January.

“I say to the public today. Take care of yourself, get your shots, get your booster, put your N95 (mask) on and don't go to the club, even if you are allowed to by this premier,” she said. “You have to take care of yourself because there will not be enough space and nurses to take care of people in ICUs and I say this with sadness because this is what we do. We take care of people. We nurse people in critical care areas. But the situation is unsustainable.”

Grinspun said that the Ford government should have introduced more “severe” restrictions, including further limits for venues like the Scotiabank Arena where approximately 10,000 fans are still permitted to gather.

But at the same time a number of business groups are expressing frustrations with the restrictions and wondering why the Ford government didn’t simultaneously announced some sort of financial support for hard-hit industries.

“I think we have restaurants right now looking at their bills that have their bankers calling them and they're trying to talk to staff and decide whether they can stay open and some level of confidence on whether there'll be support or not would have been great,” Restaurants Canada vice-president James Rilett told CP24. “They need help with everything. They need help paying their rent, they need help paying utilities, if they want to keep staff going it's really hard to keep a fully staffed restaurant at half capacity. So short of laying people off during Christmas we will definitely need help paying the salaries of staff.”