Ontario Premier Doug Ford has unveiled the government’s plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions in the province, allowing non-essential retailers to gradually reopen in certain regions with limited capacity over the next two weeks.
To start, three public health units will exit the provincial stay-at-home order on Wednesday and enter the “green” category reserved for regions with the fewest COVID-19 cases. The designation will allow non-essential retailers in Hastings Prince Edward; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington; and Renfrew County to reopen.
Most of the rest of the province will see the stay-at-home order lifted starting on Feb. 16, with the exception of Toronto, Peel and York, which will see the order lifted on Feb. 22. Areas that are no longer under the stay-at-home order will revert to Ontario’s previous colour-coded restriction system, which allows in-person shopping at non-essential retailers, but under strict capacity limitations.
“Our number one priority will always be protecting the health and safety of all individuals, families and workers across the province,” Ford said in a statement released Monday.
“But we must also consider the severe impact COVID-19 is having on our businesses. That's why we have been listening to business owners, and we are strengthening and adjusting the framework to allow more businesses to safely reopen and get people back to work.”
The grey level, the strictest in the colour-coded framework, allows non-essential retailers to open with 25 per cent capacity restriction. What level each region enters will depend on public health unit trends.
The stay-at-home order will continue in 28 public health regions until Feb. 16, before transitioning to the colour-coded system and partially reopening. The three remaining regions that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 – Toronto, Peel and York – will revert to the previous restriction system on Feb. 22.
The transition to the colour-coded system with regional restrictions is a positive one, said Dan Kelly, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). He called Ontario’s previous lockdown policy “bizarre and ineffective,” as it allowed big box stores to remain open while non-essential retailers across the province were forced to close.
But Kelly said the lifting of restrictions is “by no means enough to fend off further business closures.” He said the province should also allow other businesses – such as gyms, hair and nail salons and restaurants – to also reopen under limited capacity.
“Allowing them to reopen with a capacity constraints would have gone a long way to at least extend the economic heartbeat to these businesses until such time that physical distancing requirements are no longer needed,” he said in an interview.
“This is welcome news but it’s by no means going to mean the difference between success and failure for loads of businesses.”
The Retail Council of Canada (RCC) released a statement Monday that said Ontario’s plan to allow retailers to reopen “strikes an important balance between public and economic health – one that is supported by both data and science.”
“Ontario’s retail sector needs time to rebuild and it cannot sustain another round of closures,” RCC president Diane Brisebois said in a statement.
“This speaks to the importance of everyone – government, businesses and citizens alike – working together in the weeks and months ahead to preserve both public health and economic viability.”
Ontario had initially placed all non-essential retailers across the province into lockdown on Dec. 26. At the time, Ford said the action was “without a doubt necessary to save lives and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.”
Groups representing business owners and the retail industry have been critical of the government’s lockdown, arguing that it will push many companies out of business permanently.
The CFIB warned last month that more than 220,000 businesses across the country are at risk of permanently closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.