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Ontario to unveil new reopening plan, including ending capacity limits: source

TORONTO — Ontario will soon announce a plan for further reopening, including ending capacity limits in restaurants and gyms, a senior government source said Thursday, but the province's top doctor suggested the rules themselves won't be loosened quic

TORONTO — Ontario will soon announce a plan for further reopening, including ending capacity limits in restaurants and gyms, a senior government source said Thursday, but the province's top doctor suggested the rules themselves won't be loosened quickly.

The source, who wasn't authorized to speak about the pending announcement publicly, said the province will release a plan late next week that will "contemplate when capacity limits can be lifted."

The province paused plans in mid-August to exit Step 3 of its reopening framework as fourth-wave cases were rising. Now, daily COVID-19 case counts are stable, more than 87 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received at least one dose of a vaccine and proof of vaccination is required to access several venues, including restaurants, cinemas and event spaces.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health said he will be providing his advice to government next week, but he will want to see the effects of the recent Thanksgiving long weekend, over seven to 14 days, before more public health restrictions are removed.

"We will not be doing this suddenly," said Dr. Kieran Moore. "This will be slow, gradual and cautious."

Eventually, the province's proof-of-vaccination system will be phased out, Moore said, perhaps being removed for some settings but left in place for mass gatherings. That likely won't happen until after the impact of the upcoming holiday season is known, Moore said.

Premier Doug Ford is set to provide an update Friday on Ontario's vaccine certificate QR code and app, which the government previously announced would be in effect Oct. 22. 

The app itself is now available for download, but a spokeswoman for Ford said it is for businesses and organizations to scan people's QR codes, which will be provided by the province. 

Business groups have been expressing frustration and anger since the government announced late last week that it was lifting capacity limits for some settings that require patrons to be fully vaccinated, but not others.

Cinemas, theatres, concert venues, meeting and event spaces, and spectator sports venues were allowed to open with 100 per cent capacity as of Saturday, and physical distancing mostly isn't required. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce said they didn't understand why capacity limits could be lifted on those large venues, but not at small businesses such as restaurants and fitness studios. Restaurants don't have a percentage capacity cap, but are limited by distancing requirements between tables.

The CFIB said small business owners were wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators can pack in fans at full capacity, while a bowling alley can't open more than half of its lanes.

Julie Kwiecinski, the CFIB's Ontario director of provincial affairs, said it's good to hear there will be a plan for lifting capacity restrictions in places that have been mandated to only admit fully vaccinated Ontarians. 

"CFIB is counting on the Ontario government to make this change immediately, and not add additional delays or thresholds," she said in a statement. 

"Every day without being allowed more people is an opportunity missed to help struggling businesses make up for months of lost revenues."

Rocco Rossi, the president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said the coming announcement is good news, but the sectors should not have been treated differently in the first place.

"The fact that the initial capacity increase was announced end of day Friday of a long weekend already indicates that it wasn’t something that everybody in government was clearly comfortable with," he said.

"When you make announcements, you really need to be transparent around the data and the evidence that is driving it because those people deserve to have straight answers on it and leaving the perception that you’re treating people in a differential way around the capacity issue is just not helpful."

Moore said an Ontario science table report looking at international data found that restaurants, bars and clubs were higher-risk settings, versus a large venue with good screening, cleaning, ventilation and vaccine verification.

Ontario reported 417 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, and three more deaths. Health Minister Christine Elliott said 271 of those cases are in people who aren't fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.

There are 158 people in intensive care units due to COVID-19, with 13 of them fully vaccinated, six partially vaccinated, 79 unvaccinated, and the remaining 60 with an unknown status.

More than 82 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2021.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press