Doug Ford expected to lift COVID-19 capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars and gyms as part of ‘pandemic plan 2.0’

Doug Ford expected to lift COVID-19 capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars and gyms as part of ‘pandemic plan 2.0’
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Premier Doug Ford will lift COVID-19 capacity limits in restaurants, bars, and gyms when he unveils additional benchmarks for further reopening Ontario’s economy.

Ford, who is expected to meet with reporters Friday, hopes to deliver encouraging news for restaurateurs and others — such as publicans and fitness centre owners — who are concerned about restrictions on their businesses.

The premier’s news conference will come days before his Progressive Conservative government unveils detailed steps for reopening next week.

It’s been about three months since Ontario entered the current “step three” of reopening.

The plan will include key health markers like intensive care unit capacity in hospitals, daily COVID-19 case counts, and vaccination rates to enable the government to reinstate pandemic prohibitions if need be.

“Our approach is going to continue to be cautious, cautious, cautious. What we want is to not overload the health-care system. The current indicators are that we won’t have to go back, but we have to be careful,” said the top Conservative, who spoke confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations.

“We’re going to give everybody clarity at the same time,” the source said, wryly noting the heat the government is taking from sectors excluded from last Friday’s surprise announcement that lifted capacity limits at major stadiums, concert venues and theatres.

Restaurants, bars, and gyms — where proof of vaccination is also required — were excluded.

“What’s not great is one-offs,” said the insider, conceding that it was “a bad idea” to only address large venues.

Indeed, pressure has been mounting on Ford from opposition leaders and business groups to lift customer limits on bars, restaurants and gyms that are struggling financially in the pandemic.

“It’s a real head-scratcher,” said Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.

“I don’t think it makes sense to allow full capacity back into ... Scotiabank Arena, but not let an individual restaurant owner do what they need to do to survive.”

Ontario reported 306 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, dropping the seven-day average of new infections to 500 — the lowest in six weeks, despite the reopening of schools to in-class learning last month.

The vaccination rate now sits at 83 per cent of Ontarians over age 12 having had two shots, and 87 per cent with one, suggesting the goal of at least 90 per cent is within reach.

“We know we are close to the maximum vaccination rate (for 12 and up) because there’s 10 per cent of people who will never get their shots,” said the senior official.

The Tories quietly announced the changes for stadiums and theatres in a news release late Friday afternoon, just before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

But like a leftover turkey dinner in the microwave.

“It’s almost like they were trying to slide this policy through,” said Meg Marshall of the Queen West Business Improvement Area. She maintained more fans should be able to cheer on the Leafs in “our local restaurants.”

Critics questioned how it’s safer for patrons to be packed shoulder-to-shoulder into an arena, eating and drinking unmasked, than allowing a full slate of tables open in a restaurant or bar, where patrons must wear masks if they leave their seats.

Customer capacity is 50 per cent in most dining establishments and in gyms.

“Once again, Doug Ford is putting the mom-and-pop, neighbourhood family-owned businesses at a disadvantage,” New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said in calling for a “level playing field.”

She compared the situation to previous pandemic lockdowns, during which the government allowed big-box stores like Walmart and Costco to remain fully open while smaller, non-essential retailers were limited to online or telephone orders and curbside pickup.

There was continuing consternation after Tourism, Culture and Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod did not attend an online meeting her office called with industry leaders on Tuesday, leaving several staff members to gather feedback.

“It was pretty useless,” said Restaurants Canada vice-president James Rilett, welcoming the pressure added Wednesday by opposition parties. “The ministry didn’t have any answers for us on why this was done and what they are going to do in the future.”

MacLeod’s office said she was in Ottawa, where she represents the suburban riding of Nepean, at a meeting about hospital expansion there.

Ontario Chamber of Commerce president Rocco Rossi said the “inconsistency” between the capacity limit policies needs to be explained.

“The hard-hit, hard-working restaurant sector deserves much, much better,” he said.

Del Duca agreed that it appears restaurants, for example, are not getting a “fair shake” from the province.

“It’s OK for governments to make tough decisions but I think you have to back up those decisions ... and provide the evidence, and provide the data, and make sure people can have confidence in your decisions,” he said.

The Ministry of Health has said the capacity limits for stadiums, concert venues and theatres were lifted on the recommendation of chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore because of “limited transmission” of COVID-19 in those settings.
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