Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced plans to phase out COVID-19 restrictions in the province starting Jan. 31, citing a lower test positivity rate and stabilizing health-care workforce.
While the pandemic will still pose challenges to the health system, these challenges are now manageable for hospitals, the premier said during a press conference on Jan. 20 accompanied by Health Minister Christine Elliott and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.
“We can be confident in our ability to care for people, to provide hospital beds to those who need them, and we can be confident that the worst is behind us as we look to cautiously ease public health measures,” Ford said.
Ontario will take a phased approach to reopening with 21 days between each phase, the province said.
In the first step, restaurants, bars, gyms, and other businesses in Ontario will return to 50 percent capacity starting at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 31. Social gathering limits will also increase to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors. Spectator areas of major facilities such as sports events and concerts can reopen with a 50 percent capacity or 500 people.
If the infection trends remain stable or improve, Ontario will move to the next step on Feb. 21. At this stage, social gatherings will further increase to 25 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, while capacity limits will be removed for public indoor settings where proof of vaccination is still required.
The final stage is set to be effective on March 14, as the province lifts all capacity limits for indoor public settings, though vaccine passports will remain in place for existing settings. Social gatherings at this stage will be limited to 50 people indoors and no limits for outdoors.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the province is seeing some positive signs that it is approaching “the peak of the Omicron wave.”
“As we start to see some hopeful signs and begin to ease measures, I want to remind Ontarians how grateful we are for their sacrifices to keep one another safe,” Elliott said.
“To our health care workers, pharmacists, and other essential workers… it cannot be emphasized enough how indebted we are to you.”
In October 2021, the government had announced its plan to lift all COVID-19 restrictions—including masking requirements and proof of vaccination—by March 2022.
When asked at the press conference why the latest phased reopening plan maintains masking and vaccine passport requirements, Ford said the new Omicron variant had “changed the game,” but added that Ontario is now seeing “a positive trend” in which infection rates have lowered and hospitalization rates have dropped.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re taking a cautious approach to move forward. And I’m confident that we’re going to move forward cautiously and get things back to normal as quickly as possible,” Ford said.
On Jan. 20, Ontario saw a continued drop in the number of people admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 to 4,061 from 4,132 the day before.