TORONTO — Shoppers lined up outside Toronto stores on Monday as pandemic restrictions eased in the city following nearly two months of a stay-at-home order.
The economic reopening came as a group of Toronto hospitals launched a COVID-19 vaccine booking portal and the city announced plans to open mass immunization sites next week.
The city moved Monday into the strictest "grey lockdown" zone of the province's pandemic restrictions system, a transition Toronto's top doctor had called for.
The move allowed non-essential retailers to open with restrictions, although gyms, personal care services, and indoor restaurant dining remained closed.
In downtown Toronto, shoppers lined up at the north and south entrances of the Eaton Centre, waiting for the mall to open. Similar queues formed in front of larger stores like the Hudson Bay Company, HomeSense, and Best Buy.
Bianca Charles said she was so excited to go shopping in person that she didn't sleep the night before. She said she wasn't looking to buy anything in particular, but was eager to have the outing with her sister and a friend.
"It's just nice to have back your freedom, stretch your legs a little bit, to just do something," said Charles, who was first in line to go into a HomeSense store when it opened.
Staff manned the entrances of the stores and mall, running through a screening checklist for symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
Inside the Eaton Centre, signs discouraged shoppers from taking off their masks or eating inside the building and markers on the floor directed foot traffic. More than a dozen stores remained closed in the mall, with several saying they would reopen within the week.
Some restaurant owners said, however, that they won't be able to survive much longer unless they're allowed to reopen for on-site dining, even at limited capacity.
"Move us to the red zone (of the pandemic system) so we have a fighting chance," Regan Irvine, owner of the Irv Gastropub in Toronto, said in an open letter to officials issued last week. "Over the last year, my mother and I have depleted our life savings to try and keep the restaurant afloat."
Meanwhile, a group of hospitals and health centres said Monday that they had set up a call centre and website to help eligible Torontonians pre-register or book vaccinations while a provincial site was still under development.
Dr. David Kaplan, part of the Toronto Health Sector Vaccine Leadership Table, said the centralized booking system will make it easier for family doctors and nurse practitioners to line up appointments for their patients.
"We want to make it as easy and convenient as possible for all adults in Toronto to get vaccinated, starting with those at greatest risk of contracting and falling ill from COVID-19," said Kaplan.
People aged 80 or older, some health-care workers and Indigenous adults are currently allowed to make reservations on the site.
The provincial portal is set to launch March 15.
The city also announced that three mass vaccinations sites would open to the general public on March 17.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city was preparing to soon vaccinate its residents on a large scale.
"This truly is a Team Toronto effort and we are all determined to get people vaccinated as fast as we can and as the supply of vaccine allows," he said.
The Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the Scarborough Town Centre and the Toronto Congress Centre will be the first of nine city-operated sites to open. All three are scheduled to operate seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2021.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press