TORONTO -- Toronto’ top doctor is asking the province to place the city in the grey lockdown category of its framework for COVID-19 restrictions as of Monday, allowing non-essential retail stores to reopen while keeping most other businesses closed.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa shared her recommendation during a briefing at city hall on Wednesday, calling it a “modest step towards more flexibility in daily life.”

If approved by the provincial government the designation would allow non-essential retail stores to reopen across the city, including those located in shopping malls.

Most stores, however, will be limited to no more than 25 per cent of their regular capacity. Grocers, convenience stores and other businesses that primarily sell food will be allowed up to 50 per cent of their regular capacity.

“Based on the data in front of us it is clear that reopening widely such as under the red category of the provincial framework is not advisable at this time given our case counts,” de Villa said, noting that the number of samples that have screened positive for a variant of concern in Toronto have doubled over the last week.

“Moving out of the stay-at home order is a reasonable course of action for Toronto although I will add that while there are evident reasons for a change in status there remains reasons or risks that underscore how moving back into grey status is, or will be, a delicate balance.”

As part of Toronto’s potential move back into the grey zone, de Villa has issued a Section 22 order that will establish a series of additional requirements for workplaces with active outbreaks, including the mandatory wearing of masks at all times by employees.

De Villa said that she has also asked the Ministry of Labour to conduct a “workplace inspection blitz” in the city.

“Returning to the province’s framework represents a modest step towards more flexibility in daily life which can be taken because we all worked to limit the spread of COVID-19 but it is important that we all act in ways that do not squander these hard earned small steps forward,” she told reporters.

“It is a question of preserving what we have gained.”

Restaurants and bars will remain takeout-only

Wednesday was Toronto’s 100th consecutive day under a lockdown but the recommendation made by de Villa could represent a slight loosening of restrictions for the first time since this summer.

Of course, restaurants and bars will remain takeout-only and other businesses like gyms and hair salons won’t be able to reopen for at least two weeks.

Indoor gatherings of people from different households will also continue to be prohibited.

“I am very sympathetic to those who will not be able to reopen going into grey but I think the best way in which we can avoid that further lockdown later on, which I think everybody to a person says would be the worst case scenario, is to take these cautious steps one at a time and to follow public health advice and keep doing what we have been doing in many respects and then the day may not be too far down the road where we can do more,” Mayor John Tory said during Wednesday’s briefing.

Peel’s top doctor has also asked for region to be kept in grey

De Villa’s announcement on Wednesday afternoon came hours after Peel’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh confirmed that he would also be advocating for his region to be placed under the grey lockdown category.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie had said last week that she would push for the region to be placed in the red zone of the framework, which would have allowed indoor dining to resume at bars and restaurants with capacity limits and a wide swath of other businesses, including gyms and hair salons, to reopen.

But during his weekly briefing at Brampton city hall on Wednesday morning, Loh revealed that there has been a “reversal of the favourable trends” that had been apparent in the region since January, likely “driven by the growth of variants of concern and the loosening of measures in other jurisdictions.”

For that reason, Loh said that he will be asking provincial officials to place Peel in the grey lockdown zone once it lifts the stay-at-home order in the region as soon as Monday.

“From five cases just two weeks ago we now have over 100 confirmed case of variants in our community and 600 that have screened positive and these numbers give me pause,” he said.

“Our hospitals are also seeing admissions related to spread of variants and while ICU occupancy has improved from the peak of the second wave it still remains at levels similar to what e saw in wave one in the spring of 2020. Reopening too quickly risks eliminating the gains we have made and putting lives and wellbeing at risk.”

Peel’s rolling-seven day average of new cases has risen from 194 at the this time last week to 213.

It also has the highest weekly incidence rate of any public health unit when adjusted for population.

Speaking with reporters, Loh said that if conditions were different he would “absolutely recommend loosening measures more quickly,” as he did in July.

However, he warned that moving to quickly to reopen Peel’s economy now could result in a third wave that will ultimately shutter businesses once again.

“The UK saw a third wave when they reopened with variants in their midst and nobody, myself included, wants to see that. We must try to keep what happened there from happening here,” he said.

“That is why I encourage us strongly to reopen gradually. We don’t want to have to use the provincial emergency break as Simcoe Muskoka and Thunder Bay did.”

Crombie had previously said that she would push for Mississauga to be placed in the red zone even if Peel as a whole was kept in gray, given the comparatively lower number of COVID-19 cases in her city.

Loh was asked about that on Wednesday but seemed to reject the idea of having varying public health restrictions within a single region as “interconnected” as Peel.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown also voiced his opposition to the idea and said that ultimately the decision on where to place regions in the framework needed to be a “public health decision and not a political decision.”

“If you look at the case counts Brampton has a higher case count than Mississauga but the variant outbreak in Mississauga was one of the reasons we were held back from the initial reopening and you also have to look the severity of the cases,” he said.

“The severity of the cases has been significantly higher in Mississauga, the number of fatalities has been significantly higher so this talk about whether you can separate Peel Region doesn’t really make sense because we are completely interconnected. Our hospitals are interconnected, our communities are interconnected.

Peel Region, Toronto and North Bay are the only public health units that have not been returned to the provincial framework.