TORONTO — Families in Ontario can now expand the number of people they have close contact with to 10, as the province moved Friday to further loosen public health restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier Doug Ford unveiled the new advice on “social circles” from the province’s chief medical officer of health on the same day new rules expanding group gatherings and reopening business in some parts of the province came into effect.
The new guidelines from Dr. David Williams mean physical distancing does not need to be practised between members of the same circle.
Ford said if a household has fewer than 10 people they can add to their circle, but a person can only be part of one group.
“We know there are friends, family, and loved ones you haven’t been able to hug or come in close contact with in months,” Ford said. “And today, the public health guidelines will be changing to introduce social circles.”
The new guidelines on social circles come into effect immediately and apply across the province, but people in a group are advised to continue to maintain physical distancing with anyone outside of their circle.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the concept will help families with child- and elder-care needs, and reduce social isolation during the pandemic.
“The social circle should certainly help (but) that’s not going to take all of those issues away.”
The government said people at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 may not want to participate.
Ford stressed the new social circle advice is just that, and will not be enforced.
“The social circle police aren’t going to be knocking on your door. We trust you’re going to be doing the right thing,” he said.
Meanwhile, most Ontario regions were allowed to reopen more businesses on Friday. But restrictions will stay in place for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, which have a high concentration of COVID-19 cases.
Border regions such as Windsor-Essex, Lambton County and Niagara, as well as Haldimand-Norfolk, which has seen an outbreak among migrant workers, are also being held back from moving to Stage 2.
The second stage of the province’s reopening includes restaurant patios, hair salons and swimming pools.
Officials in several municipalities said the mood was hopeful among businesses and shoppers alike, with lineups forming outside many establishments.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was among the many to get a haircut Friday, posting a photo on Twitter from the Wellington Barber Shop before heading out to have lunch on a patio.
“I never thought I’d be so happy to see my barber than I was today,” he said. “When I left the shop there was a line of about 10 people waiting to get in so barbers are going to be very busy today.”
Because the city is next to the province of Quebec, which allowed hair salons and other businesses to resume operations earlier, some residents had been crossing the border to access those services sooner, he said.
“These are for many people, things that they’ve been yearning for some time… but, you know, it’s also about getting people back to work,” he said.
Other municipalities expressed some concerns about people travelling in from areas still in Stage 1 to take advantage of the looser restrictions.
“This is not the time for day-trippers to come up from the GTA,” Jeff Lehman, mayor of Barrie, Ont., said Thursday, adding waterfront parking lots will be open only to residents of his city.
The issue has also been discussed “at length” in Chatham-Kent, which is near two regions still in the earlier stage of reopening, said Stuart McFadden, the municipality’s director of economic development.
“We also know that we can’t put up borders, and we expect that there’s going to be people coming into our communities to take advantage of this,” he said.
Officials have been stressing the need to continue physical distancing to fend off a resurgence of the virus, he said.
Dave Jaworsky, mayor of Waterloo, Ont., said even if people wanted to come in droves from outside the city, they may face hurdles in accessing the newly reopened services.
“If you want to go sit on a patio, you have to book it in advance, there’s very limited seating. It’s gonna be all taken by the local people anyway, the local people all want their haircuts,” he said.
“And then don’t forget, when you’re travelling, there’s no washroom…the public washrooms are at a premium, they’re all still locked up.”
Many municipalities said the reopening of pools and splash pads, while allowed as of Friday, would take longer to arrange since the usual preparations, such as training life guards, were delayed by the pandemic.
The limit on social gatherings also increased from five to 10 provincewide, though people must still stay two metres away from anyone outside their own household.
Child-care centres across Ontario are also allowed to reopen, but it’s not yet clear how many will be able to implement new pandemic safety measures immediately.
Ontario reported 182 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the provincial total to 31,726 cases. There were also 11 new deaths reported for a total of 2,498.
The federal government on Friday also extended the deployment of Canadian Forces members to a number of long-term care homes in Ontario.
The soldiers were initially called in to help in a number of the province’s hardest-hit homes in late April. They will now remain at the facilities until June 26.
Ontario also announced Friday that it will add $10.5 million to a fund that helps farmers buy personal protective equipment and make workplace changes to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The move comes after hundreds of migrant workers across the province have tested positive for the virus and two have died.
In Windsor-Essex, which is currently reporting nine COVID-19 outbreaks involving migrant workers, the medical officer of health announced Friday that the health unit was backtracking on a plan to publicly identify all workplaces in outbreak.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed said outbreaks will now be disclosed by sector and individual workplaces will not be identified unless there is a direct risk to public health.
The province does not require health units to alert the public about workplace outbreaks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press