Could Simcoe Muskoka be held back from moving to Step 3 with Ontario on July 16?

For the first time in months, businesses that have been in a holding pattern across Simcoe Muskoka could have the green light to reopen as the province moves into Step 3 at 12:01 a.m. on July 16.

Ontario announced the province would shift to the third and final phase of reopening five days ahead of schedule.

"While this is welcome news for everyone who wants a return to normal, we will not slow down our efforts to fully vaccinate everyone who wants to be and put this pandemic behind us once and for all," Premier Doug Ford said in a release Friday.

However, Ontario's medical officer of health said each health unit would have the power to hold their region back from moving into Step 3 if necessary.

Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka, has been vocal for weeks about his concern moving to the next phase of Ontario's reopening too soon.

In an email to CTV News Barrie on Friday afternoon, Dr. Gardner stated entering the final phase ahead of schedule is a gamble.

"This move into Step 3 is sooner than I have advised, and thus there would be some risk with this.

I understand from communication from the Chief MOH, Dr. Kieran Moore, that the decision has been made in part based on the declining transmission for the province overall, and increasing vaccination coverage, and projections that suggest that the numbers of cases will continue to decline with a low level of transmission by July 16th."

Dr. Gardner said the highly contagious Delta variant remains a concern.

"We will need people to continue abiding by the public health measures in place and to receive their first and second dose of vaccine as soon as they can. We will also need to continue to monitor very closely the trends in transmission."

The region's top doctor did not suggest he would advise the province against moving the region into the next stage.

Back in March, Ontario pulled the 'emergency brake' on Simcoe Muskoka following a recommendation from Dr. Gardner, placing the region in another lockdown as rising cases of the UK B.1.1.7 variant surged.

Shortly after that, the region's medical officer of health received over 200 emails opposing the tightened restrictions.

One month later, the region's case counts peaked at over 100 cases per day, and ICU admissions skyrocketed.

On Friday, Dr. Gardner praised the community for keeping COVID-19 case counts low, especially following long weekends.

"At the end of the day, it's really up to us to continue moving in the right direction," Dr. Gardner concluded.

DELTA VARIANT CONCERNS

Simcoe Muskoka remains a hot spot in Ontario because of the more transmissible Delta variant.

To date, the health unit reports 74 COVID-19 cases have tested positive for the B.1617.2 (Delta) strain.

Earlier this week, Dr. Gardner said he remains concerned about the highly contagious variant.

"I certainly am mindful of the potential of this delta variant to cause surges," he said.

The region's top doctor encouraged residents to remain cautious. "I think we need to be mindful of the fact that the pandemic itself elsewhere in the world is very much active and will probably continue to do so potentially for some years to come."

Dr. Gardner said the vaccination goal is to reach herd immunity as high as 90 per cent before September.

"It's [COVID-19] more likely to well up in the winter months, the fall. So I think it's going to be a very important time for us as we enter the fall, monitoring what that virus does and whether or not it surges again."

WHAT TO KNOW FOR STEP 3

Step 3 of the Roadmap focuses on resuming indoor services with larger numbers of people and restrictions in place.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Outdoor social gatherings and organized public events with up to 100 people;
  • Indoor social gatherings and organized public events with up to 25 people;
  • Indoor religious services, rites or ceremonies, including wedding services and funeral services permitted with physical distancing;
  • Indoor dining permitted with no limits on the number of patrons per table with physical distancing;
  • Indoor sports and recreational fitness facilities can reopen with a maximum of 50 per cent capacity;
  • Indoor meeting and event spaces are permitted to operate with physical distancing and other restrictions still in effect and capacity limited to 50 per cent capacity or 1,000 people (whichever is less);
  • Essential and non-essential retail can open for shoppers as long as a two-metre physical distance can be maintained;
  • Personal care services can fully reopen, including services requiring the removal of a face covering;
  • Museums, galleries, historic sites, aquariums, zoos, landmarks, botanical gardens, science centres, casinos and bingo halls, amusement parks, fairs and rural exhibitions, festivals, with capacity limited to 50 per cent indoors and 75 per cent outdoors;

Concert venues, cinemas, and theatres permitted to operate at:
    1 - up to 50 per cent capacity indoors or a maximum limit of 1,000 people for seated events (whichever is less)
    2 - up to 75 per cent capacity outdoors or a maximum limit of 5,000 people for unseated events (whichever is less); and
    3 - up to 75 per cent capacity outdoors or a maximum of 15,000 people for events with fixed seating (whichever is less).

  • Real estate open houses may resume with capacity limited to the number of people that can maintain a physical distance of two metres; and
  • Indoor food or drink establishments where dance facilities are provided, including nightclubs, are permitted to have up to 25 per cent capacity or up to a maximum limit of 250 people (whichever is less).

WHAT TO EXPECT AFTER STEP 3

The province will remain in Step 3 for at least 21 days before considering lifting restrictions and fully reopening.

After 21 days in the final phase, Ontario's medical officer of health said 80 per cent of eligible people aged 12 and over need to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 75 per cent need to have received their second for the province to lift measures.

Additionally, public health units must have more than 70 per cent of their population fully vaccinated.

As of Friday in Simcoe Muskoka, 66 per cent of the population had received one dose, but there is a significant lag in second doses.

According to the health unit, only 38 per cent of eligible residents have had both doses.