TORONTO — Ontario will move into the second stage of its reopening plan next Wednesday, after the province's top doctor said COVID-19 vaccinations and health indicators showed enough improvement to ease restrictions slightly ahead of schedule.
That means hair salons and similar facilities will be able to reopen with mask requirements and capacity rules. Outdoor attractions like water parks can reopen, outdoor performances and team sports can resume and small indoor gatherings of up to five people will be permitted.
Groups of up to 25 people will be allowed to gather outdoors and capacity limits for retail shopping will expand.
That stage of the plan was set to take effect on July 2 but COVID-19 vaccination targets have already been surpassed. Other health indicators have also improved since strict measures took effect in April to control the third wave of COVID-19.
"We want to say thank you for what you have done," Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said Thursday in announcing the changes. "We are making steady progress."
Premier Doug Ford also thanked residents, community leaders and health-care workers, speaking at the Toronto pharmacy where he received his second dose of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Thursday. He promised further progress in the vaccination campaign.
"You've got to get every single business open and the economy booming again, and we'll get that done as soon as we get more vaccines in people's arms," he said.
Anthony and Giada Howell, the duo behind Chroma Hair Shop in Toronto, said they have yet to set an official reopening date in spite of Thursday's news.
Giada Howell said she's thrilled to finally get back to work and start making their way through a wait list that numbers in the hundreds -- a process the pair expects will take several months.
"It's a good problem to have," Anthony Howell said. "People are knocking down our door to try to get their appointment as quickly as possible, which is completely understandable."
Salons in Toronto and Peel Region have been closed since last November amid consistently high COVID-19 numbers.
Opposition politicians called for more support for small businesses Thursday to help them stay afloat after a long period of closures.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called for another round of grants that would be open to more businesses.
“Without more help from the government, businesses owners are worried that they might not make it to their reopening day or much beyond that,” Horwath said in a statement.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner echoed the call for expanded access to grants, and for more rapid COVID-19 tests to be made available to businesses.
"In order for Ontario’s economy to recover from the pandemic, we need our small businesses to have a fighting chance. And that means stepping up supports for them now before it’s too late," Schreiner said.
With more than 76 per cent of adults vaccinated with one dose, and 29 per cent fully vaccinated, Ontario has already met targets to enter the third step of its reopening plan, which will see indoor activities expand further.
But the province said it's sticking with its plan of remaining in Step 2 for "approximately 21 days" so vaccines can take full effect and other health indicators can be monitored.
"We'd rather be taking slow strides forward, than trip going out the door," Williams said at his final pandemic news conference as Ontario's chief medical officer of the health on Thursday.
"You’ve earned it, you’ve done it, but let’s keep it. "
He was joined at Thursday's news conference by his successor, Dr. Kieran Moore, who will officially take over the job on June 26.
Moore, formerly the top doctor for the Kingston, Ont., area said he agreed with taking a cautious approach, especially with the more infections Delta variant spreading in the province.
People with one vaccine dose are less protected against that variant that now makes up about half of cases in the province, Moore said.
The variant's spread has slowed the pace of reopening in the northeastern Porcupine health unit, which will enter Step 1 on Friday weeks after the rest of the province, and in Waterloo Region, which is delaying moving into Step 2, possibly until mid-July.
Waterloo Region's top doctor said Thursday the delay is meant to "avoid having to take a step back" and to allow residents have more time to be vaccinated.
"This approach gives us the best chance to hold onto the gains we have made," Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said in a statement.
Moore said the province is also watching the variant situation in health units covering Grey Bruce and North Bay. He further efforts are being made to get first doses to more than 80 per cent of adults, a statistic he said is within reach based on modelling.
"It's looking very promising," he said. "Once we achieve that ... the incidence of even Delta will be going down in our communities and we'll be able to open up more fully and more safely very quickly."
The head of the Ontario Hospital Association said the group supports moving into Step 2 a few days early, given the slowdown in COVID-19 hospital admissions and patients in intensive care.
Anthony Dale said three-week intervals between reopening stages are serving the province well, and urged a cautious approach to keep the Delta variant at bay and allow exhausted hospital workers to recover.
"With continued hard work, continued sacrifice, continued focus on mass vaccinations, we can get to a point this summer where the pandemic is largely behind us," Dale said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2021.
- With files from Nicole Thompson.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press