Ontario set to lift vaccine passport rules March 1, but masking rules remain, Doug Ford announces

Ontario plans to lift its vaccine-certificate system on March 1, Premier Doug Ford announced Monday. The province will also allow the removal of current capacity limits for restaurants by Thursday.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario plans to scrap its vaccine-certificate system on March 1, Premier Doug Ford announced Monday, while allowing the removal of current capacity limits for restaurants, bars and gyms this Thursday.

Masking rules are to remain in place, for now. And businesses will be free to continue using the province’s proof-of-vaccination system if they choose.

The premier said the accelerated timeline for relaxing restrictions comes at the recommendation of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, and is not an attempt to appease protesters who have blocked Ottawa streets or the Ambassador Bridge to the U.S., which reopened on Sunday. It does follow moves by Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta to start scrapping proof-of-vaccine systems and other public health measures.

“Let me be very clear, we’re moving in this direction because it’s safe to do so,” Mr. Ford said. “Today’s announcement is not because of what’s happening in Ottawa or Windsor, but despite it.”

The province is also opening up Pfizer booster doses to those aged 12-17 as of Friday at 8 a.m., for anyone who is six months past their second dose. The shot will be available via the province’s booking system or at select pharmacies.

Under the new plan to ease restrictions more quickly, as of Thursday at 12:01 a.m., indoor private gatherings will be limited to 50 people, up from 10. The limit will be 100 for outdoor gatherings. Capacity limits will be removed for restaurants and bars without dancefloors, gyms and cinemas, event spaces, casinos and bingo halls.

Sports arenas will be limited to 50-per-cent capacity, along with concert venues and theatres. Nightclubs and similar venues will have 25-per-cent capacity limits.

But as of March 1, if COVID-19 numbers continue to improve, all these capacity limits will be lifted – along with the mandatory vaccine passport system, which required patrons at restaurants and other businesses to show a QR code proving they are vaccinated.

Mask rules will remain “for just a little bit longer,” Mr. Ford said.

Dr. Moore said hospital admissions and testing results will be monitored closely before a decision is made about lifting more restrictions, noting that the province usually waits two weeks before it loosens another phase of restrictions. That suggests the province will not ease masking requirements until at least March 15.

Ontario’s hospital admissions have plummeted from a peak in this latest wave driven by the virus’s Omicron variant of more than 4,000 patients to the 1,369 reported on Monday. There were still 394 COVID-19 patients in intensive-care, a number that also been sinking slowly. Recent modelling from the independent COVID-19 Science Table has warned of the potential of a new surge after restrictions are loosened and predicted a sustained burden on hospitals through March.

Dr. Moore said the end of the vaccine passport was possible by those declining numbers and the high number of Ontarians who are vaccinated: 92 per cent aged 12 and over now have at least a first dose, he said, and 6.7 million people (out of a total population just shy of 15 million) have their booster doses.

“Our vaccination numbers speak for themselves. And as a result, we no longer need the proof of vaccination. It served its purpose,” Dr. Moore said.

The government says that local public health units will be able to impose their own restrictions, however, to “manage COVID-19 over the long term.”

Speaking about the protests in Ottawa, Mr. Ford warned those refusing to leave that they faced massive fines and the loss of licences and vehicles if they did not comply with orders enacted Friday when he declare a state of emergency. He also warned that the protests at the border and Ottawa risked harming Ontario’s reputation as a good place for businesses to invest.

“To those who are still there, to those of you who are there with the sole objective of causing disruption and chaos there’ll be serious consequences for this lawless activity,” Mr. Ford said.

Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was concerned that the province was moving too quickly. She said the vaccine certificates were needed to keep people safe – and that Mr. Ford was pandering to those with anti-vaccine views.

“Really the only people who see the certificates as a restriction or a problem are the anti-vaxxers,” Ms. Horwath said. ” … It’s pretty clear that what Doug Ford has said this morning is basically caving to those anti-vaxxers.”

But Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said he supported the easing of restrictions, noting it had been recommended by Dr. Moore.

Calling the period “one of the move divisive times in our history,” Mr. Ford also made a plea for unity and appeared to make a reference to his adult daughter Krista Haynes, who has been vocal on social media in her opposition to the vaccines. He said the pandemic had “fractured us as a society” over vaccines, public health measures and the limits of personal freedoms.

“I’ve experienced this in my own family. It’s been one of the hardest things my family and I have ever gone through,” the premier sad. “But for all of this, I can still take comfort in knowing that there remains so much that unites us. There’s so much that still holds us together, and I take comfort in knowing that this awful pandemic will soon be behind us.”

The province’s public-health restrictions were already being lifted on a gradual timeline, with a further relaxing set for Feb. 21 followed by an end to capacity limits for businesses by March 14. The government had not previously released a timeline for the removal of its vaccine-passport system or mask mandates.

But Mr. Ford had said last week that a plan to lift those measures would be forthcoming as well. Dr. Moore said last week that the province’s vaccine passport system was under review and that he would present options to the government this week on a timeline for ending it, as hospital admissions continue to decline.

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