The next phase of Ontario's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic gets underway later this week, the government announced Monday as it paved the way for areas outside of known virus hotspots to reopen more businesses.
Stage 3 of the provincial reopening effort takes effect on Friday in regions outside of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, the Niagara Region, and Windsor Essex.
All other health units cleared to enter the next phase of economic recovery will see significant changes in everything from public gathering limits to the range of services available to local customers. Jurisdictions in Stage 3 can hold indoor gatherings of up to 50 people not including venue staff, while outdoor gatherings can now include as many as 100 people as long as physical distancing measures are in place.
"Today's news is an important step forward," Ford said at a news conference. "It's an important step in getting life back to normal."
Ford said the arrival of Stage 3 means most businesses will be allowed to resume operations at levels not seen since before the pandemic prompted wide-spread shutdowns in mid-March.
Restaurants, for instance, will be permitted to resume indoor service as long as tables are spaced two-metres apart to encourage physical distancing. Bars and night clubs will be allowed to serve food and host live entertainment, but dancing will not be allowed indoors.
Fitness facilities, movie theatres, casinos, performance venues and conference centres are among the businesses given the green light to reopen with public health measures in place.
Personal care services, which largely resumed under Stage 2 last month, can expand to include facial contact — though saunas and steam rooms are still banned under the new rules.
A handful of services and business types remain banned under the relaxed regulations, including amusement and water parks, restaurant buffet service, overnight children's camps and private karaoke rooms.
Ford said the move to Stage 3 was made possible by the continued decline in COVID-19 numbers across most of the province, noting 21 of the province's 34 health units are reporting no new cases at all.
The rollout of Stage 3 resembles the transition to Stage 2, with only outbreak hotspots being held back. Ford said the government would provide updates each Monday as to when new regions may be able to enter the next phase of the recovery plan.
Meanwhile Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province was planning to expand the number of children allowed in daycare centres effective July 27, though few details were immediately available.
Most of Ontario entered Stage 2 of reopening on June 12, with another seven regions following on June 19.
Toronto, Peel and parts of the Windsor-Essex region were allowed to progress to Stage 2 five days later, and the remaining communities were in the second stage as of July 7.
According to a document released in late April, Stage 3 includes allowing remaining workplaces to reopen "safely."
The document notes that large public gatherings such as concerts and sporting events will continue to be restricted.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 116 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, along with three new deaths due to the novel coronavirus.
The total number of cases now stands at 36,839, which includes 32,663 marked as resolved and 2,722 deaths. More than 20,896 tests were completed over the previous 24 hours.
The numbers of people in hospital because of the virus, as well as those in intensive care and on ventilators, all slightly decreased.
Shawn Jeffords and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version gave the wrong date for when most of the province entered Stage 2.