TORONTO — Ontario announced small steps Wednesday toward reopening the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic as the growth in new cases slows, including allowing retail stores to open for curbside pickup.
Premier Doug Ford said with the numbers heading in the right direction, the government has been working around the clock to make sure restrictions can be lifted safely.
"Any reopening of our economy will be gradual, measured and safe," he said. "When it comes to reopening our economy, I'd rather be safe than sorry."
All retail stores with a street entrance will be allowed to open Monday, May 11, to provide curbside pickup and delivery. Garden centres and nurseries, which had been cleared to open this Monday for curbside pickup or delivery only, will be allowed to open their stores Friday. Hardware stores and safety supply stores can do the same as of Saturday.
Businesses that can now open their doors to customers will have to follow the same guidelines as grocery stores and pharmacies currently do, including promoting physical distancing and frequent hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces, installing physical barriers, staggering shifts, and offering contactless payment.
The province is not yet at the point of entering the first stage of its reopening framework, and on Wednesday extended its emergency orders until May 19.
Stage one of the reopening framework would see workplaces that can modify operations reopen, the opening of parks, allowing for more people at certain events such as funerals, and having hospitals resume some non-urgent surgeries.
Before that can happen, the chief medical officer of health is looking for a consistent, two-to-four week decrease in the number of new cases.
Ontario reported 412 new cases of COVID-19 and 68 more deaths Wednesday.
Dr. David Williams said the province has seen various ups and downs since late April, but is currently on day four or five of a good downward run.
"All things are trending in the right direction," he said. "We're in a very slow plateau here, so we hope to get even further progression."
John Sartzetakis, who owns Mimico Home Hardware in Toronto, said he has mixed feelings about opening his shop back up to customers.
"The whole situation is very, very stressful," he said. His store has been open during the pandemic, fulfilling online orders for curbside pickup, but he said there is some fear dealing with the general public.
Tyler Briggs, store manager at a Sheridan Nurseries location in Mississauga, Ont., greeted the news of a full opening with relief and trepidation.
He's glad to know garden centres can reopen in time for the traditionally lucrative Mother's Day weekend, but said staff will have to work hard to get the store ready to receive customers.
Employees will spend the next several days widening aisles, establishing sanitization protocols, erecting signs and setting up merchandise displays in ways that promote physical distancing.
"Everyone is extremely excited to see some new faces and our guests back in the store, but we have to make sure safety is the top priority for both our guests and our staff," Briggs said.
Julie O, the owner of Little Ones Closet, a children's clothing store in east Toronto, said since the start of the pandemic she's modified her business operations, moving entirely online.
It's been a major change for the brick and mortar retailer who now offers curbside pickup twice a week and drop-offs in her neighbourhood.
"It's been over-whelming, but I'm really grateful to the community," she said. "We've made enough just to keep our shop going. But that's meant working extra hours just to cover rent."
O, who is also a single parent, said she is just trying to keep her business afloat until the public health measures end.
"I'd love to see storefronts open up again as soon as possible but there has to be protective measures," she said. "It's great that they're allowing curbside pickup, but it's still a lot of work for small businesses while kids are still at home."
The province also renewed lower electricity rates for residential consumers, farms and small businesses to the end of the month. An initial order from March for off-peak rates to be charged all day had been set to expire this week.
The emergency orders, which were set to expire Wednesday, have now been extended for another two weeks, to May 19.
They also include a prohibition of public gatherings of more than five people, the closure of bars and restaurants except for take-out and delivery, libraries, theatres and concert venues, outdoor amenities such as playgrounds, and child care centres.
The province has separately announced that publicly funded schools will be closed until at least May 31.
Ontario's overall declaration of a state of emergency was extended last month to May 12.
Meanwhile, the LCBO announced that it is expanding store hours that were reduced in March, rolling out the earlier opening and later closing times in stages until they apply to all stores in the first week of June.
As of Wednesday, Ontario had seen 18,722 cases of COVID-19, including 1,429 deaths and 13,222 ones that have been resolved — more than 70 per cent of all cases.
The numbers of people in hospital and in intensive care units decreased Wednesday — 1,032 and 219 respectively — but the number of people on ventilators rose from 166 to 174.
Fewer than 13,000 tests were completed during the previous day, about 3,000 tests short of the provincial target.
In long-term care, there were 71 more deaths reported Wednesday for a total of 1,074. The information comes from a database separate from the provincial totals, where there is often a lag.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2020.
— with files from Liam Casey and Michelle McQuigge
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press