Premier Doug Ford says the province will begin a "cautious restart" on June 18 of visits to long-term care homes, retirement homes, group homes, and other congregate living settings that are not currently in outbreak.

"I know how hard this was on families. Trust me, I know,” Ford said. “I know the tremendous toll this has taken on people not being able to see your loved ones and for many families not being able to be by the side of their loved ones in their final or most difficult moments is heartbreaking.

“It's hard to imagine anything worse and it was a tremendous sacrifice. We must never forget what these families had to go through."

Visits have been suspended at most homes since March, cutting off many seniors from their loved ones.

The restart announced Thursday means that they will be able to resume with strict measures.

At long-term care homes, each resident will be allowed at least one visit per week with a single visitor. Those visits will only be allowed outdoors.

Retirement homes will allow indoor and outdoor visits in designated areas or resident suites when physical distancing can be maintained.

At other residential care settings, outdoor visits will be allowed with two visitors at a time.

Visits will only be permitted at homes which are not in outbreak and which have an established process for communicating visitor protocol and safety procedures. The province said homes where visits are allowed must also maintain “the highest infection prevention and control standards.”

“We are confident these visits can occur safely," Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said. "With the possible spread of COVID-19 in our long-term care homes still being a real threat, people will need to follow strict health and safety protocols in order to protect our most vulnerable."

Strict protocols for visitors

Visitors to the homes will have to pass active screenings every time they visit. That will include confirming with staff that they have tested negative for COVID-19 within the previous two weeks.

Visitors will also have to comply with the infection prevention and control measures at the home,  including bringing and wearing a face covering during visits.

The province cautioned that in the event of an outbreak or a new wave of infections, visits might be eliminated once again.

Ford said that while he knows people have been desperately waiting to visit loved ones, it’s important that strict guidelines remain in place for homes as they are still vulnerable settings.

“We have to be super, super careful when we do this and put the proper protocols, which we have, in place,” Ford said. “At the end of the day, it's going to be the home that calls the shot.

“If they don't feel comfortable then cooperate with the home because most of them are phenomenal places but again, we're going to do everything we can until you can see your loved ones - it means everything to people."

Long-term care homes have been the frontline in the province’s battle against the spread of COVID-19, with the province calling in the military to assist at six of the worst-hit homes.  

According the latest provincial data, there are currently 65 long-term care homes with outbreaks in the province. There are 235 long-term care homes with resolved outbreaks.

To date, Ontario has recorded 1,772 COVID-19 deaths among residents at long-term care homes. Seven staff members at long-term care homes in the province have also died of the disease.