Ontario businesses want to know if they can reopen on Jan. 26

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Businesses are calling on the Ontario government to announce if establishments shuttered under the latest pandemic restrictions will be allowed to reopen Jan. 26, but the province's top doctor said Thursday he can't guarantee that date.

Ontario Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rocco Rossi said in a statement that now that the province has said schools will return on Monday, it's time to provide clarity for businesses.

"We implore the government to immediately clarify if Ontario will be moving out of Stage 2 of its Roadmap to Reopen plan so employers, workers and families can plan accordingly," he said.

"Businesses, particularly small businesses, have suffered greatly over the last two years and continue to face unprecedented challenges amid a prolonged crisis."

The government announced on Jan. 3 that due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant driving up COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, schools would move online until at least Jan. 17 and restrictions would be placed on businesses until at least Jan. 26.

Restaurants were ordered closed for indoor dining, museums, zoos and other such attractions were closed, gyms, indoor recreation facilities, cinemas and indoor concert venues were shut, and retail settings and personal care services were capped at 50 per cent capacity.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said he is watching for a plateau and a peak of how many COVID-19 patients are in hospital and intensive care units.

"Early in the week, we should be able to get clarity on where we're at, and as soon as we have clarity we want to inform the business community, so I can't guarantee the 26th," Moore said.

Moore said the transmission of the Omicron variant in the province may peak in the next few weeks, and increases in hospitalizations and ICU admissions typically happen one or two weeks after infection.

Moore said he wants to keep the closures "as short as possible," and reopening will likely proceed in a phased manner, with mass gatherings, including tens of thousands of people in stadiums, the last to return.

Biz owners 'left scrambling'

Ryan Mallough of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said that reopening "is not like flipping a switch."

"Business owners need time to recall their staff, set up their spaces, secure supply and implement health and safety plans," he said in a statement.

"Coming out of previous lockdowns, the short in some cases less than 24 hours notice on reopening has left business owners scrambling, and many have had to stay closed for additional days as they gear and staff back up."

Rossi added that businesses need to know what metrics are guiding the government's decisions to impose and lift restrictions.

The reopening of both schools and businesses was subject to public health trends, the government said in early January.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott, didn't provide a timeline in response to questions from the Canadian Press.

"The government will update businesses and the people of Ontario in advance of the province's plan to exit Step 2," she said in a statement.

The "time-limited" measures will help blunt transmission of COVID-19 and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed as the province tries to get booster doses to Ontario adults.

Bill Walker of Landmark Cinemas said the government has not demonstrated that movie theatres have contributed to the spread of COVID-19, and it doesn't appear as though the current restrictions have lessened transmission rates.

"Given these facts we would ask that the province review the impact of these measures towards their stated objective of blunting the curve," he said in a statement.

"The impact of the government's measures has been significant the combination of a loss of revenue and unfortunately our requirement to lay off 400 part-time employees."

'Challenging' times for museums

Museums, too, have seen significant impacts from various restrictions throughout the pandemic, said the executive director of the Ontario Museum Association.

"The opening and closing seesaw has been very challenging for Ontario museums it affects all aspects of operations, staffing, programming, continuity, planning, budgets, etc.," Marie Lalonde said in a statement.

"The Ontario Museum Association contends that museums are able to offer safe, socially distant experiences to visitors."

Museums have been creative in offering online and outdoor experiences, but the sector could still benefit from targeted support funding to mitigate the hits to revenues, Lalonde said.

Jason Sheridan, the chief operating officer of GoodLife Fitness, said he hopes the company's gyms can reopen on Jan. 26.

"Since the start of the pandemic, GoodLife has made an extraordinary effort to keep our clubs, members, and employees as safe as possible," he said in a statement.