Canada's two largest provinces are continuing with plans to relax COVID-19 restrictions, as Quebec announced Tuesday that gyms will reopen and Ontario Premier Doug Ford said a warning of increased hospitalizations will not alter his province's reopening plan.
In a surprising about-face, Quebec Premier François Legault also announced he is scrapping a plan to tax people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. Legault said the plan announced last month for a "significant" financial penalty had proven divisive, and he wants to bring Quebecers together.
"It is time to rebuild bridges between Quebecers. It's time to reach out to each other," Legault told reporters in Quebec City.
Legault said gyms and spas, which have been closed in the province since Dec. 20, will be able to reopen on Feb. 14. Others sports and cultural activities for adults will also be able to resume on that date. Youth sports have already restarted.
"On one hand we want to protect our hospitals, there are still a lot of (COVID-19) patients — 2,852," Legault said. "On the other hand, we see that there is impatience, that Quebecers are fed up. There's a question of mental health, but also of social peace. We see the frustration growing day after day."
However, Legault said no other restrictions are being removed for now, meaning bars remain closed and private gatherings are limited to four people or two households.
In Ontario, Ford said that despite a warning from the province's scientific advisory panel, he's sticking to his reopening plan. The province allowed restaurant dining rooms to reopen Monday and relaxed restrictions on indoor gatherings. The province has also announced plans to ease restrictions further on Feb. 21 and March 14.
"We're ready to move forward, but we have to do it cautiously," Ford told reporters in Ajax, Ont. "We can't just jump into it and just open everything up tomorrow." He added that his government has invested billions of dollars to expand the capacity of the province's health-care system.
Earlier in the day, a panel of scientists that advises the provincial government said that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and intensive care admissions will likely rise following this week's reopening. The panel said new modelling shows there will be "prolonged'' pressure on the health system.
The panel said the current wave appears to have plateaued or could be in decline, but the size of a resurgence is difficult to predict because it will depend on factors such as vaccination and masking, and the spread of the Omicron variant.
"Public health measures helped control this phase,'' the experts say in the modelling. "Relaxation of these measures will increase the spread of COVID-19.''
Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters that the province's health-care system has capacity and that while COVID-19 hospitalization numbers remain high, they are starting to decline.
"Even if the numbers do go up slightly as we start opening up, the modelling has been done to indicate that we will still have the capacity to deal with that increase, but also to start to deal with the people who have had procedures or surgeries postponed," Elliott said. "So we feel that we are ready for whatever will happen as we move forward."
Both Ontario and Quebec reported 63 additional deaths linked to the virus Tuesday.
Ontario reported 3,091 people in hospital with COVID-19 Tuesday and 568 people in intensive care, down from 4,008 hospitalizations and 594 ICU patients a week ago. In Quebec, hospitalizations linked to the virus declined by 36 from the day before, to 2,852, and 218 people were in intensive care.
British Columbia's top doctor said the province is planning to slowly ease its gathering restrictions starting later this month.
"We know the COVID-19 virus is going to be with us for some time, but we are progressing through this surge," Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday.
She said B.C. has also changed its guidelines for how outbreaks are declared in long-term care homes so seniors will be allowed both an essential and a designated visitor even when there are COVID-19 cases at the facilities.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney said he is optimistic the province will be able to relax some public health measures and remove its vaccine passport program by the end of February. But he noted hospital pressures must first decline.
The province reported a record 1,585 people in hospital with the virus.
In Prince Edward Island, where one additional death was reported Tuesday, the province's chief public health officer said she will announce a loosening of restrictions next week.
Dr. Heather Morrison said isolation requirements for travellers arriving on the island could be relaxed, as could restrictions on organized gatherings and recreational activities.
"Despite the cases in the last month, hospitalizations, and despite this Omicron wave, I think we have more hope and optimism now than even compared to a month ago as we continue to manage our way through this wave of the pandemic,'' she told reporters in Charlottetown said. "I believe we will be in a very different place in a few weeks.''
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022.
— With files from Allison Jones in Toronto and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.