'Omicron will not take a holiday': Ontario announces new limits for gatherings, businesses as COVID-19 spikes

Ontario is rolling out a suite of new restrictions for businesses and social gatherings as the province contends with a spike in COVID-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant.

Province reported 3,124 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday

Two million rapid tests will be made available for free in high-traffic settings including select LCBO locations, some malls, holiday markets, public libraries and transit hubs over the holidays. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario is rolling out a suite of new restrictions for businesses and social gatherings as it contends with a spike in COVID-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant.

Effective 12:01 a.m. ET Sunday, indoor social gathering limits will be reduced from 25 people to 10, and outdoor gatherings are being reduced from 100 people to 25. 

"We need to meet this variant head on. We need to do everything we can to push it back," Premier Doug Ford said on Friday.

"Omicron will not take a holiday," said Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore, adding that the measures announced Friday will buy more time for more Ontarians to be vaccinated. 

Capacity limits will be reduced to 50 per cent for a number of businesses, including:

  • Restaurants.
  • Malls and retailers, including grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • Personal care services. 
  • Gyms. 
  • Marinas and boating clubs.
  • Pharmacies.
  • Indoor recreational amenities.
  • Tour and guide services.
  • Personal physical fitness trainers.
  • Strip clubs. 

Businesses will be required to post a sign indicating the capacity allowed inside.

The restrictions do not apply to areas being used for wedding ceremonies, funerals or religious services.

Meanwhile, restaurants and bars will have to limit seating to 10 to a table and will have to close by 11 p.m., with the exception of takeout and delivery. Alcohol sales will also be restricted after 10 p.m.

Food and drink will also be prohibited from sporting events, concert venues, theatres, casinos and other such venues.

Dancing and singing will no longer be allowed, except for "workers or performers," according to the province's news release. 

No word on schools 

Ford also said that he had no update on whether schools will reopen for in-person learning in January, saying that "we are simply not in a situation to say" what will happen. 

You can read the province's release about the new rules here

Moore was also asked specifically whether he considered it risky for double-vaccinated adults to spend time over the holidays with a grandparent who has had three vaccine shots. 

Moore responded that he didn't advise it, saying: "Interacting with anyone vulnerable over the holidays, I'm quite concerned with." 

He recommended spending time outdoors with appropriate masking and distancing instead. 

"If you're going to go indoors, I'd prefer if you'd get your third dose," he continued. 

3,124 new cases reported 

The announcement comes as Ontario reports 3,124 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and comes one day after Ontario's COVID-19 science table cautioned that the highly infectious Omicron variant could overwhelm hospitals in the coming weeks before calling for a "circuit breaker" to reduce transmission of the virus. 

Even if Omicron causes less severe illness than previous variants — a suggestion that remains uncertain and controversial — the sheer number of cases will inevitably put major strain on the health-care system, the table said.

Cases linked to Omicron are doubling every two days, or perhaps even less, an unprecedented rate for variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The table called for immediate "circuit breaker" restrictions to reduce social contacts by up to 50 per cent. Without them, daily cases could reach between 6,000 and 10,000 by the end of December, the group estimated.

Earlier this week, before the table's latest modelling was released, the provincial government announced 50 per cent capacity restrictions for large venues that hold more than 1,000 people, like professional sports stadiums and arenas.

The province also said that as of next Monday, every Ontarian aged 18 and older will be eligible for a booster shot.

Moreover, two million rapid tests will be made available for free at pop-up testing sites in high-traffic settings including some malls, retail settings, holiday markets, public libraries and transit hubs over the holidays, as well as at select LCBO locations.

full list of LCBO stores distributing free rapid tests can be found here. Many people trying to get rapid tests in Toronto reported long lines outside various locations.

As of 11 a.m., the LCBO said that at least seven Toronto locations had already run out of stock.

"We're asking the federal government, we're in desperate need of more rapid tests," said Ford on Friday. "We're going to continue searching around the world for these rapid tests."

But in a statement responding specifically to the science table's forecasts Thursday, the government offered no hint that further restrictions could be coming. That's despite the main takeaway of the modelling being that, according to the table, current measures and booster shots will not be enough to curb the spread of Omicron.

Asked on Friday why new measures were not announced earlier, Ford responded, "This is moving rapidly. There could be possible changes in another week." 

The revised projections also suggested that without additional measures, admissions of COVID-19 patients to critical care could, in an absolutely worst-case scenario, reach 600 by the new year.

The province said about 600 adult ICU beds are available, with nearly 500 more available for surge capacity if needed.

Independent physicians and public health experts have questioned whether there would be enough qualified workers to actually staff those beds, and have also cautioned that surgeries will start to be affected once roughly 300 COVID-19 patients are in critical care.

As of Thursday evening, there were 358 people hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 309 the same time last week. There were 157 patients being treated for COVID-related illnesses in ICUs, up from 151 at the same time last week.

Positivity rates rising

Meanwhile, today's case count is the highest in more than seven months and a 115 per cent increase over the same time last week.

The seven-day average of daily cases has climbed to 1,914, which is a 72 per cent jump over last Friday. The metric is on pace to double every 10 days or so.

Positivity rates continue to spike across much of the province. Public Health Ontario this morning reported an 8.2 per cent positivity rate from 51,636 tests. That's the highest level on a given day since May 11, when a rate of 8.5 per cent was reported from just 28,109 tests.

The Ministry of Health also logged the deaths of five more people with COVID, pushing the official toll to 10,107.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp and Lucas Powers


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