Ontario set to lift COVID-19 measures by March, including mask mandate

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TORONTO — Ontario is set to lift all COVID-19 public health measures by the end of March, including mask mandates.

Premier Doug Ford said Ontario is in a position to do this thanks to the province's careful approach to re-opening and the resulting stability seen 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, as it implements the plan to ensure restrictions can be lifted safely.

The easing of restrictions will start Monday, with capacity limits lifted in restaurants, bars, gyms, casinos and indoor meeting and event spaces.

The government says 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 emergency orders, on March 28, 2022.

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 and local 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.

In modelling released earlier Friday, a group of science experts advising the Ontario government said the province can control the spread of COVID-19 if public health measures stay in place.

The experts said a combination of vaccination and public health measures has led to declining case counts and stable hospitalizations and ICU admissions.

But as cold weather approaches, driving more activities indoors where the risk of transmission is higher, the science table said continuing some public health measures is necessary to maintain control of the pandemic.

Modelling shows that if there is no change in policy or people's behaviours, cases will continue to decline, while some increase in social contacts will keep cases stable. A "substantial" increase in contacts could lead to more than 600 daily cases by the end of November.

All of those scenarios assume public health measures such as masking, a proof-of-vaccination system, symptom screening and good ventilation and filtration continue.

The province paused plans in mid-August to exit Step 3 of its reopening framework as fourth-wave cases were rising.

Now, the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 cases is stable, nearly 88 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a vaccine and proof of vaccination is required to access several venues, including restaurants, cinemas and event spaces.

Ontario reported 492 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and 11 more deaths. Health Minister Christine Elliott said 325 of those cases are in people not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.

There are 149 people in intensive care units due to COVID-19 –128 of them aren't fully vaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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