TORONTO — Pandemic restrictions will loosen in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region next week as the province lifts a strict stay-at-home order, a move the government described Friday as a "positive step forward."
The two regions, along with North Bay Parry Sound, were the last ones still under the order that was imposed in January amid surging COVID-19 cases. Most of the province transitioned back to the government's colour-coded pandemic response framework last month.
Toronto and Peel will be placed in the strictest "grey lockdown" category of the framework starting Monday, as was recommended by public health officials in the two areas.
That will allow more retailers to open, with restrictions, but leaves gyms, personal care services and indoor restaurant dining closed. Social gatherings remain banned indoors, and are capped at 10 people outdoors.
The province said Friday it opted to place Toronto and Peel in the lockdown category because the two regions are making progress but their case rates remain high.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is taking a "safe and cautious approach" to ending the provincewide shutdown.
"Despite this positive step forward, a return to the framework is not a return to normal," she said in a statement.
"As we continue vaccinating more Ontarians, it remains critical for everyone to continue to follow public health measures and stay home as much as possible to protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities."
Meanwhile, North Bay will be placed Monday in the red zone, the second most restrictive level of pandemic measures.
That means gyms will be able to reopen, so long as they limit capacity to 10 people in indoor classes, 10 in the weight area, and 25 in outdoor classes. Indoor restaurant dining and personal care services can also resume, with restrictions. Only five people are permitted for indoor social gatherings, and 25 for outdoor ones.
North Bay's top public health doctor, Dr. Jim Chirico, said the move to the red zone, which he had recommended to the province, will "provide much needed relief for the businesses and restaurants."
He acknowledged the prolonged lockdown has been difficult on the community but said it was necessary to protect vulnerable residents and help the area's long-term recovery from the pandemic.
The mayor of Mississauga, which is part of Peel Region, also voiced relief that some businesses could reopen, while stressing the need to remain diligent in complying with public health measures.
"Although this is not the level we wished to be placed in, I understand why the government of Ontario has placed Peel in the grey-lockdown zone," Bonnie Crombie said in a statement.
"I am pleased that our businesses will be able to start to reopen with limited capacity and begin to recover."
Some residents expressed frustration that restrictions in Peel weren't loosened further.
"This is getting out of hand now. At one point, we're going to have to start opening up businesses," said Amna Mekhar, 23, who works at a Starbucks in Mississauga.
Adam Taylor, 40, who works from his Mississauga home, says the rules for the lockdown zone should be changed to allow gyms to reopen instead of retail stores.
"I don't think people should be walking around in malls. You can do all that online and do pick-ups. Gyms are for the benefit of your health," he said.
In Toronto's west end, some residents said they looked forward to the change next week.
"It'll be nice just for something else to do. And you can’t buy everything online, sometimes you want to see something first before you buy it," said Mark Bablovic.
Another resident, Abdul Mohammad, also cited shopping in welcoming the switch to the grey zone. "I can’t wait. I got a lot of returns to make," he said.
Others seemed less enthusiastic.
"It doesn’t really matter to me, I'm limiting trips to the grocery store even with the change,” said Cathy Robitaille.
Seven other regions will also move to different restriction levels on Monday.
The province says Peterborough, Sudbury and Simcoe-Muskoka will go into the red zone; Haldimand-Norfolk and Temiskaming will go into orange; and Haliburton, Kawartha and Pine Ridge, as well as Renfrew County, will go into yellow.
- with files from Denise Paglinawan and Liam Casey.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 5, 2021.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press