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Ontario may move into Step 2 of reopening plan earlier than planned: Ford

TORONTO — Ontario might move into the second phase of its reopening plan a few days ahead of schedule, Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday, promising an announcement "very shortly.
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TORONTO — Ontario might move into the second phase of its reopening plan a few days ahead of schedule, Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday, promising an announcement "very shortly."

Step 2 of the province's three-part reopening will see services like haircuts resume and allow outdoor venues like water parks and other attractions to open.

Small gatherings of five people indoors and larger gatherings of 25 people outdoors will also be permitted, along with outdoor team sports and events with restrictions.

Ford said the province's health minister and top doctor are currently discussing the possibility of an earlier move to Step 2, which is currently set to begin July 2.  

"They'll be coming out with an announcement very shortly," he said. "This is all due to the vaccinations going extremely well."

The province has said its tiered reopening plan will move ahead based on vaccination rates and other public health indicators. 

It has already surpassed the COVID-19 vaccination targets set for starting Step 2 – which requires at least 70 per of adults to have one vaccine dose and 20 per cent to be fully vaccinated – and is currently at the immunization threshold set for Step 3, with more than 76 per cent of adults having one dose and 27 per cent fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.

Dr. David Williams, the province's top doctor, has so far appeared reluctant to significantly speed up the reopening plan that has each stage separated by 21 days, citing the risk of a virus resurgence with a more infectious variant spreading. 

He said last week, however, that he would consider moving to Step 2 a few days ahead of schedule. 

The head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business criticized the pace of Ontario's reopening, saying the province was lagging behind other communities in Canada. 

"Perspective: The Ontario government is considering allowing its citizens to get a legal haircut one day before Alberta removes virtually every COVID restriction, including masks," Dan Kelly wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have dropped significantly in Ontario since a provincial state of emergency and stay-at-home order was imposed in April to control a deadly third wave. The pace of vaccinations has also picked up since then. 

Public health officials have expressed concern over the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, which has threatened progress in some parts of the province, but there were signs of improvement on Wednesday. 

Officials in the northeastern Porcupine Health Unit, which was the only region that didn't reopen earlier this month, said it would enter Step 1 of the plan on Friday.

Porcupine had been battling an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 infections, particularly in the Timmins, Ont., area and in James Bay First Nations. The region's top doctor said Wednesday that trends have improved.

"We recognize those sacrifices and challenges, and appreciate the hard work that has gone into the past couple of weeks to really see the sustained trends that we needed to be able to move forward," said Dr. Lianne Catton.

She said the health unit would have to monitor trends and see when the province moves ahead with Step 2 before deciding on further reopening. 

Ontario reported 255 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 11 more deaths linked to the virus.

- With files from Denise Paglinawan

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press