Ontario has unveiled a three-step reopening plan that will lift public health restrictions based on vaccination rates and other indicators starting in mid-June, although many outdoor recreational facilities will reopen this weekend.
Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that the province can start gradually loosening restrictions because COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining while vaccinations increase.
“This has to be done slowly and with extreme caution,” he said. “That is the only way it will work.”
The province is currently under a stay-at-home order that was imposed amid skyrocketing cases last month. The measure closed thousands of businesses, moved schools online and shut outdoor recreational facilities.
Ford said Ontario is expected to move into step one of its reopening plan on the week of June 14, after 60 per cent of adults have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The premier's spokeswoman said 58.5 per cent of adults had so far received one shot.
Before that plan kicks in, however, the province will first reopen outdoor recreational amenities such as golf courses and tennis courts on Saturday, with restrictions in place. Experts had roundly criticized the province's closure of the amenities, saying outdoor activities were important for physical and mental health.
The premier said his government had been working with science and medical experts to develop the province's reopening strategy.
“I know, above all, you want certainty right now,” he said. “That's what this framework is designed to do, to provide certainty and predictability. ... I know that there might be some people who want to move faster, but we can't risk it right now.”
Earlier Thursday the province's science advisers said maintaining some public health measures until mid-June and continuing progress with vaccinations would ensure Ontario has a “good summer.”
Step one of the province's reopening plan will see some non-essential retail reopen with 15 per cent capacity limits, allow outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, and outdoor restaurant dining with four people at a table.
The second stages will allow outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people and the resumption of personal care services where masks can be worn, as well as indoor religious services with capacity limits of 15 per cent.
The third stage will further expand access to indoor settings with restrictions, including where there are larger numbers of people and where masks cannot be worn.
The province will remain in each stage for at least 21 days, only moving to the next stage if specific vaccine targets are met and health-system indicators remain positive.
To move to stage two, 70 per cent of adults will need to have had their first shot and 20 per cent need to be fully vaccinated. For the third and final stage, the province said it wants 70 to 80 per cent with one dose and 25 per cent fully vaccinated.
The reopening of schools is not part of the strategy. Ford said there is currently no consensus on when schools should resume in-person learning.
“We just have to get around the table and make sure we have an agreement on this,” he said, adding he was concerned by expert projections that cases could increase if schools reopen.
Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said earlier Thursday that reopening schools at the start of June could lead to a six to 11 per cent increase in cases but that “may be manageable.”
The group of science advisers painted a cautiously optimistic picture for the months ahead, but warned against loosening restrictions too soon.
“The direction of the pandemic has turned,” said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the advisory table. “If we're careful and cautious, we can maintain this momentum. And this momentum is what gets us to a good summer.”
The group predicted that a mid-June reopening will see daily infections drop below 1,000 cases next month and continue to decline through the summer.
The advisers, who criticized the government's closure of outdoor recreational facilities, also said outdoor activities should be encouraged since they are safer than indoor gatherings. They noted that residents need to avoid associated risks, such as carpooling with people outside of their household and going to crowded places.
The science advisers also said the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals was declining but the facilities are still under “incredible strain.”
“Our hospitals remain at risk,” Brown said. “It's our care and caution that will bring them out of this risk.”
Ontario reported 2,400 new infections on Thursday and 27 more deaths from the virus. The Ministry of Health said 1,320 people are in hospital, with 721 in intensive care and 493 on a ventilator.
Ottawa Public Health reported 89 new cases Thursday.