Ontario plans to lift all remaining public health measures including proof of vaccination and mask requirements indoors by March 2022.
At a Friday news conference in Toronto with Premier Doug Ford, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Keiran Moore and Minister of Health Christine Elliott, it was announced that the removal of the measures will take place "slowly and incrementally" over the next six months, guided by ongoing monitoring of key public health indicators.
Those indicators include: whether any new COVID-19 variants arise, how many people are in hospital and ICU with the illness, and if the province once again sees a rapid increase in transmission of the disease.
Here's a timeline of what you can expect:
Oct. 25: The province will lift capacity limits in the majority of settings where proof of vaccination is required including restaurants, indoor sports facilities and gyms, casinos, bingo halls and indoor meeting and event spaces. Places of worship, museums and personal care settings such as barbershops and salons can also do away with capacity limits if they require proof of vaccination.
Nov. 15: The government plans to lift capacity limits in remaining higher-risk settings where proof of vaccination is required, including night clubs, wedding receptions in spaces where dancing is involved, strip clubs, bathhouses and sex clubs.
Jan. 17: Assuming the holidays don't contribute to any "concerning trends," the plan is to lift capacity limits in places where proof of vaccination is not required. At the same time, proof of vaccine requirements may also be lifted for restaurants, bars and sports facilities.
Feb. 7: The province plans to lift proof of vaccine requirements in high-risk settings including night clubs, strip clubs, bathhouses and sex clubs.
March 28: Ontario plans to lift mask-wearing requirements in indoor public spaces, as well as remove proof-of-vaccine requirements for all remaining settings. Capacity limits and public health measures could be re-introduced at local levels to manage COVID-19 as needed.
By then, Moore said, hopefully enough Ontarians are immunized, including children aged five to 11, so the virus can't find hosts in which to reproduce.
Asked if masking requirements will also be lifted for classrooms by March, Ford didn't answer explicitly, saying all decisions will be informed by the key indicators as well as advice from the chief medical officer of health.
WATCH | Doug Ford outlines upcoming changes to provincial restrictions:
'Continued vigilance' required: top doctor
The province also says it intends to allow for greater capacity at organized public events such as Remembrance Day ceremonies and Santa Claus parades, with more details coming in the near future.
"We are now in a position where we can see the proposed plan for lifting the remaining public health and workplace safety measures in Ontario," said Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, in a news release Friday.
"The months ahead will require continued vigilance, as we don't want to cause any more unnecessary disruption to people's everyday lives."
Ford said it was "a cautious plan," that sticks with what has worked for Ontario. "It will do everything possible to avoid broad lockdowns."
Ontario is "currently trending toward the best-case scenario," Moore said, adding 87.7 per cent of eligible Ontarians have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 83.6 per cent have taken two doses.
Asked if ending proof-of-vaccination requirements was counterproductive to maximimizing vaccine uptake, Ford replied that he didn't think so.
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 and restaurants will work throughout the weekend to make sure they're ready to open fully by Monday," said James Rilett, the group's vice-president for Central Canada.
He said it's heartening that restaurants are set to have the requirement for proof of vaccination lifted before some other kinds of 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.
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.
4th wave receding, but monitoring data key
Meanwhile, Ontario's science advisory table said Friday the fourth wave of the pandemic in Ontario is receding, but keeping some health measures in place while vaccinating children will keep it under control. Things like masking, vaccine certificates and improvements to ventilation in indoor settings will help to ensure the pandemic continues to wane, the group said.
The 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 the requirements for vaccine certificates 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 and react to rising cases, Bogoch said, noting that if Ontario waits and instead reacts to rising hospitalizations, it's acting too slowly.
Ontario has been at step three of what the government calls its "Roadmap to Reopen" since mid-July. Last Wednesday, CBC News reported the province's strategy for lifting pandemic restrictions would be unveiled this week.
Ford has said the new plan will provide a long-term vision, and will involve applying any new restrictions in tailored and localized ways with the aim of avoiding further shutdowns.
Currently, fitness centres in Ontario are limited to 50 per cent capacity. At restaurants and bars, capacity is also limited to ensure patrons of different groups maintain a distance of two metres.
Despite the recent holiday weekend and students recently heading back to school for in-person classes, the pandemic continues to recede in Ontario.
The seven-day average of new daily cases has been falling since Sept. 5 and now stands at 406, while the burden on hospitals has remained relatively steady.