Ontario has rolled back social gathering limits in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors.
Premier Doug Ford made the announcement on Thursday afternoon at Queen's Park, saying that the new rules apply to “unmonitored social gatherings and organized public events” held on private property or in parks.
“We've seen two days this week of over 300 new cases, within a 24-hour period,” Ford said. “As a province, we have to help them, all three regions, not just to stop the spread to other parts of Ontario, but to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Ford clarified that the restrictions do not apply to events or gatherings held in “staffed businesses” or facilities such as movie theatres, banquet halls, gyms or convention centres.
Those facilities can still have 50 people indoors as long as people maintain proper physical distance from anyone outside their 10-person social circle.
The new rules also do not apply to places of worship or wedding ceremonies, although large receptions held in private residences, backyards or parks will fall under the gathering limits.
Ford stressed that most large facilities and restaurants are implementing strict protocols to ensure a safe environment.
“I think all the banquet halls and the restaurants have been doing an incredible, incredible job. It's their livelihood and they want to make sure that they stay open,” Ford said. “It’s a lot different actually compared to a free-for-all party, and everyone is going hog wild, swinging off the trees and every other thing, it's just totally different.”
In addition to the new gathering restrictions, the premier said that his government will be proposing hefty fines of up to $10,000 for anyone who organizes a private gathering that exceeds the limits. This is in addition to the current $750 fine for those caught violating COVID-19 rules.
“This is the highest fine anywhere in the entire country,” Ford said. "We will throw the book at you if you break the rules, and we cannot afford to have a few rule breakers reverse all of the progress Ontario has made over the past six months.”
The amendment to the Reopening Ontario Act still has to be passed in the legislature.
In Stage 2 of the province's economic reopening plan, only 10 people were allowed to gather indoors and outdoors. Those rules changed in mid-July as the number of infections dropped across the province, allowing 50 people to gather indoors and 100 people outdoors.
Since then, the daily case count has steadily crept back up. On Thursday, health officials reported 293 new COVID-19 cases, with 315 on Wednesday, 251 on Tuesday and 313 on Monday.
The majority of those cases were located in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa.
Local mayors in those areas previously expressed concerns over the large gathering limits, saying that parties have been hosted in their cities and may be contributing to the spread of the disease. In response, Ford said that local politicians should feel free to change the gathering limits themselves or impose further health regulations, but on Thursday the premier said he relies on mayors to call him and ask for support, along with local medical officers of health.
Mayor John Tory reacted to the news on Thursday afternoon saying that the reduction of social gatherings "responds directly" to the city's request to handle the "current resurgence" of COVID-19 cases in Toronto.
"Dr. de Villa recommended reducing the social gathering limits and I strongly supported that recommendation yesterday publicly and in my conversations with Premier Ford," Tory said.
Despite that, Tory admits that weddings not being included under the new rules is a cause for "concern." On Wednesday, Toronto Public Health said they are aware of 22 different infections tied to just four weddings where guests were interacting in close quarters.
"These are places where it seems the virus is spreading. So we're going to have to have a look at how we can, you know, try to educate people better to see if there are other rules that could be put in place that address that."
Meanwhile, the mayor of Markham issued a statement saying he was “disappointed and concerned” that York Region wasn’t included in the new restrictions considering its proximity to Toronto.
“We want to avoid becoming another COVID-19 hotspot,” Frank Scarpitti said.
“I have long called for a consistent and regional approach, especially in large urban areas. Strict protocols have to remain in place to ensure the safety and protection of everyone. Not only does this leave our community more vulnerable, but could also invite illegal gatherings in our backyard through short-term rental accommodations.”
What about the number of people in schools?
The new restrictions will have no impact on Ontario schools.
Health Minister Christine Elliott stressed that students have already been divided into cohorts and that teachers and staff are taking every precaution necessary.
“We're talking about an entirely different situation between the plan that has been set up in our schools to protect our students, and these totally unmonitored social events where none of the public health rules are being followed at all,” Elliott said.
Speaking at a news conference ahead of Ford’s announcement, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that she finds it shocking the premier is not mandating smaller class sizes while still reducing the number of people who can gather socially.
“People will wonder what is the right thing to do when in one place you can have only 10 people but in another you can still have 25 or 50 people. It creates much, much more confusion,” she said.
“Everybody knew that the second wave was coming. Everybody knew that the end of the summer that fall was upon on us, that numbers would be going up, that parents would be worried about school and kids would be going back to crowded schools in crowded buses."
Horwath also commented on Ford’s almost weekly warnings for people not to have large gatherings and to follow proper public health guidelines, saying that government appears to be “picking and choosing what advice to take” when enacting public health measures.
“I think that it’s not good enough for the premier to point fingers and call out certain groups of people. It’s the government’s responsibility to put policies in place that keep people as safe as possible.”
With files from CTV News Toronto's Queen's Park Bureau Chief Colin D'Mello