Why Ontario’s not hopping to Step 3 of reopening despite hitting vaccination targets

In the last month, Ontario’s smashed its COVID-19 vaccination targets.

With 76 per cent of adults having received one dose and 29 per cent fully immunized, the province is technically ready — according to its own indicators — to hop from Step 1 to Step 3 of reopening.

But Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s outgoing chief medical officer of health, says not so fast.

There are too many other variables, and variants, at play that could push up case numbers and send Ontario back into lockdown, Williams said at his final news conference Thursday before retiring

Instead, Ontario must stay the course and for the most part move into Step 2 next Wednesday. The public health  targets for this stage are 70 per cent of adults with one dose and 20 per cent fully vaccinated, according to the province’s reopening plan.

Ontario is required to wait at least 21 days before entering Step 3, which requires 70 to 80 per cent of adults with one dose and a quarter fully vaccinated — numbers the province has already hit. 

Hair salons and tattoo parlors will be allowed to reopen at reduced capacity under Step 2, but gyms and restaurants with only indoor dining are out of luck until at least mid-July when Step 3 could begin.

A woman walks past a closed restaurant in Toronto on Sept. 28, 2020. Those without outdoor patios will remain closed until at least mid-July 2021 under the province’s reopening plan. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Be patient … Let’s experience Step 2,” Williams said. “You’ve earned it. We’ve done it. Let’s keep it.” 

One in four adults haven’t received their first dose, a vulnerability that could spur outbreaks, especially if the province reopens too fast, Williams said.

And while the number of new daily COVID-19 cases hovers around 300, there are concerning “outbursts” across the province, including Waterloo Region, which is battling the more infectious Delta variant and will stay in Step 1.

Delta variant poses new threat

Williams’s successor Dr. Kieran Moore said the Delta variant is spreading quickly in some communities and there’s concern it could lead to another wave, as seen in the U.K. There, COVID-19 cases rose by almost 35 per cent in one week this spring, according to government data.

One dose provides some protection against the variant, but two doses are “highly effective,” Moore said. 

Dr. David Williams, right, Ontario’s outgoing chief medical officer of health, talks to his replacement Dr. Kieran Moore during a news briefing at Queens Park in Toronto on June 24, 2021. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“So we would love to see the percentage of Ontarians with their second doses rising even higher,” he said. 

Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said the Delta variant is so contagious, it’s threatening an entirely separate pandemic from the original COVID-19 strain. 

“There’s still millions of Ontarians without [vaccine] coverage whatsoever,” said Furness, a University of Toronto assistant professor. “That’s enough for a pretty stiff wave.” 

Small businesses push to reopen

The businesses that still can’t reopen, however, are frustrated, said Ryan Mallough of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. They understand the need for caution to avoid another lockdown, but are also desperate to operate again at a reduced capacity, he added.

Some in Toronto and Peel Region have been in lockdown for more than 12 months since the pandemic began, said Mallough, the federation’s senior director of provincial affairs for Ontario.

“These businesses have been closed for so long, just allowing even a trickle of customers and patrons to come back, a little bit of economic activity, could be the difference between keeping these businesses afloat or seeing them close for good,” he said. 

Furness said he sympathizes with these business owners, describing the province’s reopening rules as”arbitrary.” For example, patio dining is risky, but allowed in Step 1, whereas people getting a personal service, like a hair cut, while wearing a mask is relatively safe, is not allowed until Step 2, he said. 

The province also needs to require businesses to do more surveillance testing of workers, looking for COVID-19 cases before there’s an outbreak, he said. 

“Testing can be used to control transmissions,” Furness said.

“And I think a lot of people are fed up with lockdowns.” 

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