Ontario will ease the COVID-19 restrictions put in place earlier this month, allowing restaurants and gyms to open at 50 per cent capacity starting Jan. 31.
But business groups say the reopening plan is too slow, and that the province must come up with "a strategic and evidence-based plan to manage future waves."
Premier Doug Ford announced the plan to gradually lift restrictions on Thursday, saying that while the Omicron variant will continue to pose challenges on the healthcare system, it can be managed.
"We can be confident in our ability to care for people, to provide hospital beds to those who need them, and we can be confident that the worst is behind us as we look to cautiously ease public health measures," Ford said.
"As we do, Ontario will repeat the success of past reopenings. We are taking a phased approach, with 21 days between each step to make sure we haven't moved too fast."
The new reopening plan
Starting Jan. 31, businesses including restaurants, bars, retailers, gym and recreation facilities, cinemas, meeting and events spaces will be able to operate at a 50 per cent capacity limit. Social gathering limits will also be increased to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Sporting events, concert venues and theatres will be able to operate at 50 per cent capacity, or to a maximum of 500 people, whichever is fewer.
The measures will be in place for at least 21 days before the province advances to the next step of reopening.
"We want to do everything humanly possible to avoid having to go backwards," Ford said.
"If that means pausing between steps for a few extra days, we won't hesitate to do so."
If public health indicators remain positive, the government said it will further lift public health measures on Feb. 21, removing capacity limits in indoor public settings where proof of vaccination is required, and increasing gathering limits to 25 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.
The next phase of reopening, currently scheduled for March 14, will see capacity limits lifted on all indoor public setting while maintaining proof of vaccination requirements. Capacity limits on religious services will also be lifted, and social gathering limits increased to 50 people indoors, and no limits for outdoor gatherings.
'Mega slow' reopening
The Ontario government introduced additional COVID-19 restrictions in early January as the province grappled with rapidly rising cases of the Omicron variant. The province closed schools, paused non-urgent surgeries and forced gyms to shutter and restaurants to close indoor dining.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) called for "a quick end" to COVID-19 restrictions, as well as a re-introduction of financial support programs that were in place early in the pandemic.
CFIB president Dan Kelly described Ontario's reopening plan as "mega slow" on Thursday, saying thousands of businesses will continue to lose money every day, given capacity restrictions.
"It is progress, but I don't know too many small business owners who would describe being permitted to operate at half their capacity as great news," Kelly said on Twitter.
"For most, it is upgrading from imminent bankruptcy to just losing money every day for the next two months."
Ontario Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive Rocco Rossi urged the government "to stop thinking in short-term increments and come up with a strategic and evidence-based plan to manage future waves."
"We are calling for investments in testing capacity and business supports to foster a sustained reopening guided by evidence and science," Rossi said in a statement.
"Government also needs to be transparent about the data behind restrictions. Businesses need to see modeling that justifies the nature and timing of response measures and how they are successfully mitigating the virus or alleviating pressure on our overwhelmed health care system."
According to the CFIB's mid-January business barometer poll, small business confidence has plummeted amid the re-introduction of COVID-19 restrictions. The poll, which was based on online responses from 503 CFIB members, found that nearly one in four (24 per cent) of business owners estimated they would reduce staffing levels in the next three months.
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.