The chances of large parts of Ontario moving soon to Stage 3 of the province’s COVID-19 reopening plan are looking bright as the spread of the coronavirus remains slow in most public health units.
It’s been nearly three weeks since all of eastern and northern Ontario, as well as much of the southwestern part of the province, advanced to Stage 2. That allowed the opening of shopping malls, hair salons, swimming pools, and bar and restaurant patios.
Data from those 24 public health units — everywhere but the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton, Niagara, Windsor-Essex, Lambton and Haldimand-Norfolk — show the spread of the virus remains largely contained.
“We hope to be able to move into the next stage as soon as possible,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Tuesday.
“It’s looking very good, but we still need another week’s data to really inform the situation, and then decisions will be made about the opening of Stage 3.”
More than half of Ontario’s 34 public health units currently have fewer than 10 active cases (coronavirus cases that are considered to still be infectious). Fifteen health units have three or fewer active cases.
The parts of the province that were first to advance to Stage 2 — including Ottawa, Waterloo Region and London — have a combined population of nearly six million. In these areas, since restrictions were eased on June 12:
- The combined number of new cases daily has averaged 27, down from a daily average of 34 in the four preceding weeks.
- The number of new cases reported daily has remained below 35 on all but one day.
The trend in the daily number of new cases is the statistic watched most closely by health officials in determining whether restrictions can be lifted.
Provincial-level discussions are currently happening about when to announce Stage 3, Elliott said. She said the decisions to be made include which parts of the province would move ahead and which measures would be relaxed.
“We have to do it safely,” Premier Doug Ford said. “We will do it safely, and we’re going to do it in steps as we did before. We just have to continue seeing the numbers go in the right direction.”
Provincial officials have said any announcements about progressing to the next stage would be made on Mondays.
An announcement on Stage 3 could come within the next week or so, according to Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, a medical officer of health in eastern Ontario. He told a videoconference with reporters on Tuesday that officials are looking at increasing the maximum size of gatherings and allowing customers inside restaurants.
Specific Stage 3 changes not yet clear
The province has not laid out precisely what changes will come in Stage 3 of the reopening. Its general framework released back in April suggested Stage 3 would mean “opening all workplaces responsibly” and “further relaxing the restrictions on public gatherings.”
Even with a move to Stage 3, mass gatherings such as concerts and spectator sports events would remain prohibited “for the foreseeable future,” the framework says.
Restrictions currently in place in Stage 2 that could be eased include the closure of playgrounds, the 10-person limit on social gatherings, and the ban on indoor seating at restaurants and bars.
While the daily number of new COVID-19 cases is a crucial metric for determining the timing of Stage 3, the other measures that are considered include the availability of hospitals beds, speed of testing, and effectiveness of tracing close contacts of each person who tests positive.
Some public health units see mandatory mask usage in indoor public settings as a key tool in preventing outbreaks and advancing to Stage 3.
“We want to move to Stage 3,” Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, said while presenting evidence in favour of a mask policy during a news briefing on Monday. “We want all the businesses to be open. We want people to be able to continue to get back to work.”
The public health unit covering Kingston — which previously had among the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in the province — ordered masks to be worn in indoor public places in response to an outbreak at a nail salon that is now linked to 27 confirmed cases.
Mask wearing, handwashing likely to remain
The ability to prevent and contain local outbreaks will be one of the province’s considerations about whether a public health unit is ready to move to Stage 3, said Dr. Chris Mackie, the London-Middlesex medical officer of health.
The province is “watching the data carefully and not rushing into a Stage 3 reopening, which I think is appropriate,” Mackie said on Tuesday in a news conference.
The province will take the lead on the decisions about Stage 3, according to Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, medical officer of health for the Region of Waterloo, among the first public health units to advance to Stage 2.
“When we reach Stage 3, it is very likely that many of our current heath measures, such as physical distancing, mask wearing and handwashing, will remain in effect,” Wang said in a statement to CBC News.