The countdown is on.
Ontario is planning to ease COVID-19 restrictions on indoor restaurant dining, gyms, movie theatres and more on Jan. 31, allowing them to open at 50 per cent customer capacity with masking protocols and proof of vaccination, sources told the Star.
The date, a week from Monday, will mark almost four weeks since Premier Doug Ford ordered venues closed on Jan. 5 to quell the Omicron variant, which has sent new COVID-19 infection levels off the charts and filled hospitals with record numbers of patients.
But there are signs the Omicron wave is peaking after quickly burning through the province, with the growth in infections and hospitalizations slowing.
“We’re starting to see a glimmer of hope,” Health Minister Christine Elliott told a news conference Wednesday. “We expect these trends to continue, giving us more confidence as we plan for what comes next.”
Ford is expected to announce details at a news conference Thursday after hinting for two days that “positive changes” are coming, but providing no dates or other information.
That teaser, and a promise from Elliott to provide “more clarity later this week,” frustrated a business community that felt it was being strung along after struggling through almost two years in the pandemic.
“The dance of the seven veils may be entertaining but it’s a hell of a way to announce policy,” said Ontario Chamber of Commerce president Rocco Rossi.
“It’s beyond frustrating to the point of being hugely insulting to people who are hanging on by their fingernails.”
The 12 days until Jan. 31 would give the province time to track trends in key pandemic indicators, do more vaccinations and see how the reopening of schools is impacting infection levels and the health-care system, sources said.
Health officials said other positive signs pointing to the ability to reopen include a decline in test positivity rates to the 20 to 25 per cent range, down from 31 per cent weeks ago, and fewer health-care workers calling in sick with the virus or isolating, easing a continuing staffing crunch in hospitals.
When the restrictions were imposed, Ford said the tentative date for lifting them was Jan. 26, and businesses circled that date on their calendars.
Chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters Wednesday the reopening will be “staged and phased,” meaning it will take time for businesses to return to full capacity. Typically, stages move in 14-day increments so their impact can be measured.
“I’m starting to have more hope and cautious optimism,” Moore said of the trends, while noting key metrics for business reopenings include hospital capacity — which is expected to remain high into February — and outbreak levels in nursing homes, which also remain high.
“We still have hospitals that are under very challenging circumstances,” said Matthew Anderson, chief executive of the Ontario Health agency, which oversees all components of the health-care system.
More than 100 patients were transferred from swamped hospitals to others with beds available last week as the hospital system hit daily pandemic occupancy records for COVID-19. There were 4,183 patients in hospital for the virus in Wednesday’s report, a rare drop of 51 from the previous day.
Intensive care unit occupancy for COVID-19 remained well within capacity at 580 patients, far below the level of almost 900 when ICUs were on the verge of being overwhelmed in last spring’s third wave.
With Toronto schools returning to in-class learning two days late because of Monday’s snowstorm, Moore acknowledged the government will have to be “a little more cautious” on reopening.
“We need to take it slow and steady so we don’t endanger this first step with schools,” said Dr. Peter Jüni, scientific director of the science table of experts advising Ford and Moore.
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