TORONTO -- Ontario has declared its third state of emergency since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be implementing a provincewide stay-at-home order as of Thursday.

Premier Doug Ford made the announcement Wednesday after hours of discussion with his cabinet.

The stay-at home order will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and will last 28 days.

"I can't stress this enough. Things are extremely, extremely serious right now. And I'm extremely concerned," Ford told reporters at an afternoon news conference.

"The situation is evolving rapidly, hour by hour. And as things change, as we learn more about these deadly new variants, as we see new problems arise, we need to adapt. We need to move quickly and decisively. And right now, above all else, our plan is to get needles in the arms and protect our hospitals. That's why, today, on the advice of the chief medical officer of health I'm declaring a state of emergency."

During this time, all non-essential retailers will close to in-person shopping, in-person dining will be prohibited and gyms and personal care services will be shuttered. Retailers will be able to offer curbside pickup and delivery services between the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Big box stores will be allowed to remain open only to sell essential goods. Shopping malls will be limited to curbside pickup via appointment and delivery.

A select group of stores will be allowed to remain open by appointment only with a 25 per cent capacity limit. This includes safety supply stores, businesses that primarily sell, rent or repair assistive devices, rental and leasing services including automobiles and equipment, optical stores that sell prescription eyewear, businesses that sell motor vehicles and boats, vehicle and equipment repair and retail stores operated by a telecommunications provider or services.

In addition to the closure of most businesses, the stay-at-home order makes it illegal to leave a place of residence, except for essential reasons such as work, school, trips to a grocery store or pharmacy and for health-care reasons.

“To boil it down as simple as possible, folks please stay home unless it is for an essential reason,” Ford added. “The situation is extremely serious and we just need to hunker down right now, we need to limit mobility.”

Ford added that the province doesn't "have enough police officers to chase people down" but asked everyone to cooperate with the stay-at-home order.

Meanwhile, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones told reporters at Queen’s Park that the measures "will be enforced.”

“It is critical now more than ever that people adhere to the orders and follow public health measures,” Jones said.

The province will not be shuttering schools and child-care facilities throughout the stay-at-home order, despite the fact that three of the province’s public health units, Toronto, Peel Region and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, have already done so.

“It will not involve any closures of schools,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CP24 Wednesday morning. “It was our promise to keep schools open and to keep them safe.”

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The stay-at-home order comes after the province was placed into a shutdown on Saturday, which closed all in-person dining, fitness facilities and personal care services. Retail stores were all allowed to remain open with strict capacity limits.

Officials said at the time they were not issuing a stay-at-home order because it produced “tremendous ill effect on both children and adults.”

Since then, the Ford government has been criticized by hundreds of Ontario doctors and medical officers of health for not going far enough to contain the spread of COVID-19 variants.

On April 4, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh and Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches sent a letter to the province asking them to implement a provincewide stay-at-home order.

Ford said he acted ‘immediately’ once ICU patients surpassed 500

The premier indicated on Wednesday that he took action “the second” he found out that there were more than 500 COVID-19 patients in Ontario intensive care units.

“The ICU has taken off, the capacity in the ICU of these variants have taken off even beyond what they told us. The second I found out yesterday, immediately, I asked (Dr. David Williams) to start writing up the orders.”

The province has said that once there are more than 300 COVID-19 patients in ICUs, care not related to the disease becomes impossible to handle.

The surge in COVID-19 patients in the ICU is not unexpected. Doctors have been issuing warnings over the past month that the healthcare system is being significantly impacted by the super contagious COVID-19 variants.

In modelling data released on March 11, health experts said that in the best-case scenario, there could be 400 COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

Less than a month later on April 1, the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table indicated that even with a stay-at- home order, Ontario could see up to 800 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units by the end of the month.

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Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health defended the government’s decision to implement the stay-at-home order now, as opposed to making it part of the original shutdown.

“I think what is misinterpreted is that by implementing stay-at-home order now, that things have not been done or undertaken up until now, that's totally incorrect,” he said. “We have implemented our framework all the way through. We have continually moved our health units into higher levels of limitation and lockdown.”

Earlier this month, more than 150 doctors sent a letter to the Ontario government asking them to stop using ICU capacity as a benchmark in their COVID-19 lockdown framework.

“Ontario is at a critical point in the pandemic, and we are being led down a very dangerous path by using ICU capacity as a benchmark for tolerance of COVID-19 spread,” the letter said. “Even if we had unlimited ICU capacity, allowing these variants of concern to spread exponentially is unethical.”

The last time the province issued a stay-at-home order was in January following the winter holidays. At that point, there were 386 COVID-19 patients in Ontario ICUs.

On Wednesday, the province confirmed 3,215 new cases of COVID-19 as well as 17 more deaths. The province’s seven-day average for number of cases recorded is now 2,987, up from 2,316 one week ago.

There have been a total of 370,817 lab-confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, including 7,475 deaths and 335,983 recoveries.