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Business group calls for clarity as Ontario meets one target to lift restrictions


TORONTO — A prominent business group called for clarity Thursday on what's next in Ontario's reopening plan, as the province met a major milestone for further lifting restrictions.

The province announced Thursday that 80 per cent of residents aged 12 and older have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, meaning one of three conditions the province has set for moving beyond Step 3 of its reopening plan has been met.

In light of the news, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business called on the province to communicate its plans for pandemic rules going forward and how it will respond if infections spike again.

"Many businesses are hanging on by their fingernails right now and are super anxious to know what the pathway is to remove these remaining restrictions and what restrictions will stick around," Dan Kelly, president of the group, said in an interview Thursday.

Most businesses are still subject to capacity limits under Step 3, which allows larger group activities outdoors and keeps masking and distancing rules in place for indoor events and spaces.

Capacity rules have had a continued impact on revenue for businesses that depend on in-person customer volumes like wedding planners, event spaces and gyms, Kelly said. He said owners are eager to know what's next so they can plan accordingly.

They also want to know the plan for avoiding future lockdowns if cases spike, he said, after a year of on-and-off shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

The province hasn't yet laid out what public health rules will stay in place after Step 3, though officials including the premier and the top public health doctor have said most restrictions will lift at that point with a few exceptions.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said Thursday that the province's indoor masking policy would continue. She said experts recommend keeping masks and pointed to other jurisdictions that have lifted mask measures only to reinstate them after case numbers rose.

"We are going to continue with the pathway that keeps the vast majority of Ontario citizens safe and hope that people do the right thing and get vaccinated as soon as they can," she said. 

Businesses also want to know the plan for avoiding future lockdowns if cases spike, Kelly said, after a year of on-and-off shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. 

In order to move out of Step 3, the government has also said 75 per cent of people 12 and older must have received their second dose, and all public health units must have 70 per cent of eligible people fully vaccinated.

If vaccination targets are met and health indicators are stable after three weeks in Step 3, restrictions could roll back further, making Aug. 6 the earliest possible date for the change. 

Kelly said businesses are eager to move ahead by that date as many depend on summer season revenue to survive the slower months of the year.

"We really need to know whether or not we're going to be able to salvage a little bit more of the season," he said. 

Ontario does not publicly report vaccination status broken down by health unit. But some municipal leaders eager to move beyond Step 3 have noted that the regional targets are a main area of focus in their vaccination drives.

Mayors and chairs of the largest municipalities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area said this week that they want to meet the reopening milestones "as quickly as possible."

"We are encouraging all residents to get vaccinated to help ensure the reopening continues unabated," the group said in a statement. 

Other health units outside the densely populated southern Ontario regions have called for more residents to get vaccinated, with some noting that allocation of supply has played a role in the lag. 

Simcoe-Muskoka, the health unit covering the city of Barrie and the surrounding area, reported 62 per cent of residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated as of Thursday. 

Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the region, said this week that the district has received less vaccines than areas hit harder with infections, leaving its local vaccination progress a few days behind the provincial average. 

He also noted that the region, which serves as a tourist destination for many out-of-town visitors, has ended up vaccinating a number of non-residents during its immunization campaign. 

"That has made it more challenging for us to be able to keep up with the provincial coverage rate for our population," he said.

The top doctor in the northern Porcupine Health Unit wrote an open letter to residents last week asking them to get vaccinated amid a drop in appointment bookings after Step 3 rules took effect. 

Dr. Lianne Catton told reporters on Tuesday that the region needs to vaccinate more than 3,700 people to reach the 70 per cent vaccination target set by the province to reopen further. 

"We have the vaccine, we have the vaccinators, we have the information, we have everything ready to go, we just need individuals," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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