Toronto and Peel Region will remain under a stay-at-home order for at least another two weeks but some restrictions will be eased in York Region next week as it enters the red zone of the province’s reopening framework, the province announced Friday.
At the request of the medical officers of health in both Peel Region and Toronto, strict lockdown measures will be maintained in the two COVID-19 hot spots until at least March 8, the Ford government says.
A stay-at-home order will also remain in effect for the North Bay-Parry Sound District Health Unit.
While those three regions will not be rejoining the province’s colour-coded reopening framework, York Region, which has seen slightly less community transmission of the novel coronavirus in recent weeks, will be placed in the red or “control” zone of the framework on Monday.
Over the past week, York Region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Karim Kurji, and local mayors had repeatedly requested that the region enter the red zone, which allows indoor dining to resume and gyms and hair salons to reopen with reduced capacity.
Outdoor gatherings of no more than 25 people and indoor gatherings of no more than five are also permitted in the red zone. Weddings and religious services can resume with 30 per cent indoor capacity and no more than 100 people outdoors.
“We really rely on people on the ground, the local medical officers. They know their area better than anyone and then they converse with the chief medical officer (Dr. David Williams). There has to be some sort of trust in these relationships,” Premier Doug Ford said on Friday regarding the decision to lift some restrictions in York, even though the per capita infections rate in the region still exceeds the province’s parameters for red zones.
Most regions of the province have transitioned back to the framework over the past two weeks following declining COVID-19 case counts, deaths, and hospitalizations.
In one region of the province, however, concerning public health trends have prompted the province to introduce more restrictions.
“Lambton Public Health will be moving from the Orange-Restrict level to the Red-Control level as a result worsening public health trends in the region over the past week,” the Ford government confirmed Friday.
Niagara Region’s medical officer of health also requested last week that his region stay in the grey or “lockdown” zone, which keeps most businesses closed with the exception of retail.
In the grey zone of the province’s updated framework, all retail stores, including “non-essential” shops, can reopen to customers with just 25 per cent of their regular indoor capacity. This now also applies to big box stores that do not primarily sell groceries or other essential items. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and convenience stores can all operate at 50 per cent capacity in the grey zone.
Medical officers of health in Toronto, Peel Region, and the North Bay Perry Sound District Health Unit have asked for tougher public health measures to remain in effect due to higher levels of transmission in the regions and concerns over how more transmissible COVID-19 variants are circulating in the community.
On Friday, Ontario reported an additional 39 confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants, bringing the total to at least 395. Officials have said that hundreds of additional samples have screened positive for a variant of concern and the variants are likely circulating much more widely than is being detected.
On Friday, Ford conceded that the variants circulating in many communities are “scary” and stressed that in moving regions back to the framework the province is “not reopening.”
“The facts are Toronto, Peel and North Bay are going to be under complete lockdown for the next couple weeks and if the mayors and the medical officers of health come to Dr. Williams and say that we want to lock down further we will,” he said.
Given the close proximity of regions in the GTA, many people have expressed concerns about the possibility of Toronto and Peel Region residents visiting other cities with fewer restrictions.
When asked about the possibility of “region-hopping” earlier this week, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said she is hopeful that won’t happen.
“I think that the last time there was a concern around this was pre-Christmas, where as I recall York Region still had open shopping malls open and Toronto and Peel didn’t. So I think people were doing their shopping, they were excited for Christmas. In a way, it was understandable (but) unfortunate that they did travel,” she said.
“I am very much hoping that now it’s not a holiday period, people understand that all these measures have had a very promising effect but if we let loose, we are going to see another pandemic wave, and possibly worse, now with the variants.”
The province has said their reopening strategy involves an “emergency brake” that would allow Williams to immediately transition a region back into lockdown if cases begin to surge.
But Yaffe conceded earlier this week that the province’s public health measures table had not yet provided specifics about when that emergency brake should be triggered.