The Ontario government has announced new restrictions in response to the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Capacity limits, restrictions on food and drink service, and gathering size caps are among the new measures that were announced Friday.
“We need to meet this variant head on. We need to do everything we can to push it back,” Premier Doug Ford said at a press conference.
“Over the coming days and weeks, daily COVID cases will continue to accelerate, with Omicron being the most transmissible variant we’ve seen yet.
“But while our intensive care units remain stable, we expect the number of admissions to grow as more people catch COVID, particularly the unvaccinated.”
In a statement, the government announced a 50 per cent capacity limit in the following indoor settings, in a bid to “reduce opportunities for close contact”:
The government said the limits do not apply to a portion of a business that is being used for a religious service, funeral, or wedding. Ontario chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said the exception for those events only applies to a ceremony portion which have masking, distancing, and other restrictions.
The number of people permitted to sit at a table will be limited to 10.
Bars, restaurants, meeting and event spaces and strip clubs will be required to close at 11 p.m., though takeout will be allowed to continue. Alcohol sales will be restricted after 10 p.m.
Patrons will be required to remain seated and dancing will not be allowed, other than by workers or performers, the statement said.
Food and drink service will not be permitted at sporting events, concerts, theatres, cinemas, casinos, gaming establishments, horse racing tracks, car racing tracks, and other venues, officials said.
The government also announced that the indoor informal social gathering limit is being reduced to 10 and the outdoor limit is being reduced to 25.
All of the new restrictions take effect Sunday at 12:01 a.m., which Ford said will give businesses time to adjust.
“The experts have been very clear: nothing will stop the spread of Omicron. It’s just too transmissible,” Ford said.
“What we can do and what we’re doing is slowing it as much as possible to allow more time for shots to get in the arms.”
Ford added that he knows parents are concerned about what will happen with schools in January. He said no decision has yet been made on what will happen.
During Friday’s press conference, Ford didn’t announce new measures to help businesses, but he said they will be “exploring every option to provide more supports.”
He also said he was joining Quebec’s call for the feds to expand business and worker supports.
“We’re going to be targeted and look at necessary supports given the circumstances, which is the capacity limit differences that we’ve got here,” Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy added.
“And we’ll have something to say in the very near future.”
Ontario reported 3,124 COVID cases Friday, continuing a steep upward trend of case numbers. The number of patients in intensive care units with COVID has remained relatively stable, but overall is on a slow rise.
Earlier this week, the province announced new measures in a bid to combat the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, including making booster shots available to those aged 18+ starting Monday as the government builds capacity to deliver more doses.
Capacity restrictions of 50 per cent were placed on large venues.
Free rapid tests are also being distributed.
Officials continued to call on Ontarians Friday to get their booster shots when they become eligible.
“Millions of Ontarians will be eligible to book an appointment for their booster starting on Monday,” Moore said.
“Please get yours as soon as you are eligible.”
Ford was asked during the press conference why the government decided to announce these additional restrictions Friday and not two days prior during his other announcement.
“Well, again, we always get our advice through through the experts, but this is moving rapidly and there could be possible changes in another week,” he said.
“It could change as we see these numbers accelerate and I’m just being up front with people, these numbers will accelerate. So everyone has a responsibility in Ontario to be cautious throughout the Christmas break. Don’t have a large number of people.”
Moore was asked about how he currently views Omicron’s virulence, which some studies have shown may be less severe than previous strains.
“We don’t want to create over-concern regarding this. We want everyone to remain calm, to be assured that we’re following the data every single day,” he said.
“We’re counting every case in Ontario that’s Omicron. We’re following them up clinically to see if they need to be admitted to hospital.”
He said so far, out of over 1,000 confirmed Omicron variant cases, two individuals have been hospitalized.
“Once we get better understanding of the severity of this virus, we’ll communicate that to all Ontarians,” he said.
“At present, it’s affecting a younger population. We’re very concerned about how it could infect others, so those that are older and hence the reason this government has put in such protective measures for the long-term care sector, our retirement homes and our seniors to best protect them.”
Moore said if the strain turns out to not be virulent for all ages, public health measures may be modified. He said the measures being taken now are being done in “an abundance of caution” as it’s spreading very quickly and officials need time to understand its effects.
Moore advised people to “avoid social contact” with older adults even if those involved are vaccinated. If interactions do take place, precautions should be taken, he said.
The province’s science table released its latest modelling on Thursday which said early evidence suggests that without “prompt intervention, ICU occupancy could reach unsustainable levels in early January.” It also suggested cases could hit up to 10,000 per day by Christmas.
Ontario’s science table confirmed vaccines are less effective against the new variant, however emphasized that booster shots will “substantially” increase protection, adding that even two doses of the vaccine will help against severe infection.
If Ontarians cut their contacts by 50 per cent and the province administers up to 250,000 booster shots per day, it would go a long way to curbing the spread of Omicron, the modelling suggested.
The table provided modelling for the scenario where Omicron is 25 per cent less severe than Delta and where Omicron is the same severity.
In both cases, ICU occupancy rose significantly if no additional measures were provided, with the latter displaying the occupancy of more than 600.
— With files from Jessica Patton and Gabby Rodrigues