Ontario will continue to lift COVID-19 restrictions this week, easing capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars and retail settings as of Thursday and removing the vaccine passport system as of March 1.
Premier Doug Ford announced on Monday that capacity limits will be removed for all indoor settings where proof of vaccination is required as of 12:01 a.m. ET on Feb. 17. Sporting events, concert venues and theatres will be under a 50 per cent capacity limit, while higher-risk settings such as nightclubs, restaurants where there is dancing and sex clubs will remain capped at 25 per cent. Social gathering limits will be increased to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.
The province also said it will remove the vaccine passport system as of March 1. While COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted, the mask mandate will remain in place.
Ford pointed to declining hospitalization rates as well as a drop in COVID-19 positivity rates, saying the progress has allowed chief medical health office Dr. Kieran Moore to recommend further easing of restrictions in the province. Ford also stressed that the lifting of restrictions was not in response to the protests in Ottawa and Windsor, "but despite it."
"The removals of these measures has always been our objective and something we have collectively been working toward for months now," Ford said at a press conference on Monday.
"Let me be very clear. We're moving in this direction because it's safe to do so."
Business groups want reopening certainty
Ontario initially unveiled a reopening plan last month. The province was scheduled to enter the next phase of the reopening plan, which includes the removal of capacity limits in indoor public settings where proof of vaccination is required, on Feb. 21.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which has called for the removal of most COVID-19 restrictions for months, said Monday's announcement "is a positive step toward recovery and welcome news to the provinces small businesses."
"Removing business restrictions is a big step, but just the first in a small business recovery plan," CFIB president Dan Kelly said in a statement, pointing to ballooning debt figures for many small businesses.
"We urge the Ontario government to back up today’s announcement with a stay-open plan to provide clarity and certainty as we continue to manage the pandemic. This would include ensuring there is adequate healthcare capacity to avoid any renewed restrictions or business closures in the future."
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) president and CEO Rocco Rossi also urged the government to provide a "comprehensive and clear plan" that will allow businesses to reopen and stay open.
"The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have created an unstable and unpredictable environment for Ontario business," Rossi said in a statement.
"The plan to reduce restrictions will only be successful if it is accompanied by the necessary measures to support business predictability, build public confidence and sustain the reopening."
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.