TORONTO -- As more businesses prepare to reopen their doors on Friday, the Ontario government says it will not make it mandatory to wear masks or face coverings—although they remain recommended by health officials.

Speaking at Queen’s Park on Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford responded to questions about a Greater Toronto Area mayor who called for the government to change its policy as certain regions were given the green light to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic and others were not.

“We have to encourage people,” Ford told reporters. “I’ll be having that conversation and I highly, highly recommend you go outside and you’re in large groups or you’re in shopping centres, wear a mask.”

The premier went on to say that while his government thinks wearing face coverings is “critical”, policing 14.5 million people would be “very, very difficult.”

“We just don’t have the manpower for bylaw and police officers to be chasing people without masks,” he said.

The Ford government released a new list of regions in Ontario that can advance to Stage 2 of the reopening phase on Monday.

As of this Friday, the only regions not allowed to move forward to Stage 2 are Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex. They will remain in Stage 1 until at least next week, when the province will reassess the data and decide if they are ready to move forward next Friday.

The areas excluded from moving forward to Stage 2 remain the province's COVID-19 hot spots. Ontario reported 184 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, 118 of which were recorded in Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex.

"For the regions still staying in Stage 1, Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex, we ask you please be patient because we can't let our guard down," Ford said on Monday.

The decision to reopen certain areas of the GTA has caused concern for some municipalities. Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, whose region borders Toronto, has called on the government to make the wearing of masks mandatory, saying that without a province-wide strategy areas that reopen may experience a spike in COVID-19 cases or a second wave.

“We need the same rules across the province of Ontario. It becomes difficult for the public to understand what a rule is in one jurisdiction versus another,” Scarpitti said.

“If the provincial government does not move forward making it mandatory to wear masks, I’m asking the retailers and even some of the restaurants to impose no masks, no service.”

Scarpitti added there would be exceptions for people with health conditions that make it difficult to wear a mask.

Ford told reporters that he will be speaking with Scarpitti Tuesday afternoon about his concerns.

At the same time, Ontario’s Minister of Health Christine Elliott said that guidance from health officials remains the same—physical distancing is still the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The guidance we have received from the chief medical officer of health as well as the other public health experts at the command table is that the physical distancing is still the most important rule to follow, that we should continue to do that for the foreseeable future, and that masks should be worn in situations when that's not going to possible,” Elliott said.

"A number of retailers have decided that they want masks to be worn if people want to enter and that's the retailers right to do that. So it's not mandatory, it's recommended, again when physical distancing can't be achieved."

Province releases guide for businesses reopening

The Progressive Conservative government also acknowledged on Tuesday that customers and workers may not feel confident visiting stores or providing services. In that light, the government has released a new downloadable “toolkit” offering tips and guidelines for employers reopening their businesses for the first time since the pandemic was declared.

The guide is meant to help businesses identify risks for transmitting the disease and create a safety plan to help control the spread of COVID-19. One hundred and thirty-three sector-specific labour guidelines will also be included in the toolkit.

“Over the past few weeks, we've taken steps to build the necessary confidence that will help everyone prepare, adapt and get our economy going again,” Ford said.

“That means giving employers confidence that they have what they have and can open their doors. It also means giving workers confidence and we have to give customers confidence and that is how we will get our economy roaring once again."

The announcement also comes on the same day where 14 employees at a Home Depot in Richmond Hill tested positive for COVID-19.

The store, which was closed overnight for deep cleaning, remains open.

York Region Public Health is asking anyone who shopped at the store between May 30 and June 9 and had close interactions with staff to self-monitor for the symptoms.