TORONTO — Ontario is set to lift all COVID-19 public health measures by the end of March, including mask mandates, as part of a long-term plan for managing the virus.
Premier Doug Ford said Ontario is in a position to do that thanks to the province's careful approach to reopening and the resulting stability in case counts, hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
"We're here because we stayed cautious," he said. "We stayed disciplined and we never underestimated this virus. We look to other countries, other provinces, there could be no question that this was and is the right approach."
The province said it will be assessing key public health and health-system indicators – including the identification of new COVID-19 variants and increases in hospitalizations – in the coming months to ensure restrictions can be lifted safely.
"I'm going to be super cautious," Ford said. "If we do not see numbers in a stable place we just aren't going to do it."
Experts say it's encouraging the steps of the plan will be based on data, but it's hard to know what the situation in Ontario will be in January or March.
The easing of restrictions will start Monday, with capacity limits lifted in restaurants, bars, gyms, casinos and indoor meeting and event spaces.
If museums and galleries, places of worship, and personal care settings require proof of vaccination, they can lift capacity limits on Monday too.
Proof-of-vaccination requirements will also start to be lifted early next year – as long as trends don't become concerning – starting with restaurants, bars, gyms and casinos in January.
Ontario is aiming to lift all remaining measures, including masking requirements and proof of vaccination in other settings such as sporting events, on March 28, 2022.
By then, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said, hopefully enough Ontarians are immunized, including children aged five to 11, so the virus can't find hosts in which to reproduce.
"Then we will have to learn to live with this virus, but it gives us a significant amount of time to build up the immunization protection of our population," he said.
In modelling released earlier Friday, a group of science experts advising the government said vaccination and public health measures have put Ontario in a good place, but as cold weather drives more activities indoors where the risk of transmission is higher, continuing some public health measures is necessary to maintain control of the pandemic.
Their modelling goes to the end of November, and experts say there's too much uncertainty to say definitively whether it will be safe to lift vaccine certification starting in January, or mask mandates in March.
"There's a chance that it all works out," said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician. "There’s also a chance things get thrown off because of rising cases and you have to change course."
It will be important to closely watch the data, he said, and react to rising cases. If Ontario waits and instead reacts to rising hospitalizations, it's acting too slowly, Bogoch said.
Dr. Kali Barrett, a critical care physician and member of the science table, said it's important that the province's plan remain data driven, and that public health measures be reapplied locally, if needed.
"We're actually doing really well in Ontario right now and it's really reassuring to see that the public health measures that we have been using for the past several weeks have worked," she said.
"I hope it gives people some reassurance and confidence that we'll be OK over the next several weeks to months if we continue to use these public health measures."
Looking ahead to the January and March target dates for lifting restrictions, Barrett said it's hard to say now if she will be comfortable with those, but she was encouraged to hear Moore say that in January he will look at the impact of the holiday season before deciding to move ahead with ending the vaccine certificate system.
Ford said he wants to do everything possible to avoid broad lockdowns, and if any public health measures need to be brought back in place, it will be done in a localized way.
Targeted measures could include re-establishing capacity limits or distancing requirements, requiring proof of vaccination, reducing gathering limits, and recommending or requiring that people who can, work from home.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Ford's announcement is "putting the cart before the horse," announcing an end to the proof-of-vaccination system when enhanced vaccine certificates only recently became available and before millions of children become eligible for vaccines.
The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said the plan puts the province’s progress at risk, particularly since some restrictions will be easing as winter approaches.
Restaurants Canada, which was angered when capacity limits were lifted on large venues ahead of small businesses such as restaurants, said it was pleased with the plan.
"We thought we should have been open two weeks ago, but we're happy that it's finally here," said James Rilett, the group's vice-president for Central Canada.
He added that it's heartening that restaurants are set to have the requirement for proof of vaccination lifted before other establishments.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also said it was glad to see the playing field levelled, but both organizations called on the government to provide more supports for businesses to implement the vaccine certificate system.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed that call.
Jason Sheridan, chief operating officer of GoodLife Fitness, said the company is grateful to have the green light to boost capacity in its gyms.
Ontario reported 492 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday – 325 of those are in people not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown. There are 149 people in intensive care units due to COVID-19, with 128 of them either not fully vaccinated or having an unknown vaccination status.
- with files from Nicole Thompson.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press