Ontario to drop most mask mandates on March 21, remaining pandemic rules to lift by end of April
Move draws backlash from one of the largest education unions in Canada, calling the plan 'premature'
Ontario will scrap most mask mandates — including in schools, restaurants, gyms and stores — across the province on March 21, with remaining COVID-19 regulations also set to drop by the end of April.
The province says improving health indicators, such as a stable COVID-19 test positivity rate and declining hospitalizations, as well as Ontario's high vaccination rate and the availability of antiviral treatments, allow for these steps.
The province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, announced the new changes Wednesday.
"We are now learning to live with and manage COVID-19 for the long term," Moore said. "This necessitates a shift to a more balanced response to the pandemic."
However, Moore said removing the mask mandate "does not mean the risk is gone" or the pandemic is over.
He noted masking requirements may need to be reinstated if there is another spike in COVID-19 cases, adding that vulnerable people should continue to take precautions despite the easing of restrictions.
"We should all be prepared that we may need to resume mask wearing," he said, adding that he hopes anyone who remains vulnerable will continue to wear a mask.
WATCH | Masks will no longer be mandated in most settings:
"We will closely, carefully monitor COVID-19 trends across the province. We will not hesitate to take action should the situation change and we will inform Ontarians of any significant developments," he said.
All restrictions to lift on April 27
The next step in Ontario's reopening will come on March 14, when mandatory vaccinate-or-test policies end for workers in schools, child-care settings, hospitals and long-term care. Individual organizations can keep their own requirements in place, and most hospitals have said they will continue their strict vaccine mandates.
On March 21, masking requirements will be removed in most indoor settings in the province, including restaurants, retail, fitness centres and grocery stores and schools.
- You can read the province's full update at the bottom of this story.
Mandates will still remain in place for a period of time for public transit, long-term care and retirement homes, shelters, jails and congregate care and living settings. Toronto's top doctor has recommended the city's mask mandates expire in lockstep with Ontario's.
Other measures in schools will also be lifted on that date, including removing cohorting and daily on-site screening. In addition, all other regulatory requirements for businesses will be removed, including passive screening and safety plans.
Then on April 27, all remaining mask requirements and emergency orders will expire.
Meanwhile, Ontario is also expanding its list of settings eligible for PCR testing to include home and community care settings and provincial demonstration schools.
'Not supported by science,' head of science table says
Shortly before Moore's announcement, Premier Doug Ford said Ontario will remain cautious even after mask mandates are dropped, adding that "anyone who wants to wear a mask [is] more than welcome to.
"If you want to keep your mask on, keep it on. If you want to take it off, take it off," Ford said at a news conference.
The province has already begun rolling back some pandemic health measures, as it lifted proof-of-vaccination rules for certain businesses as well as capacity limits for businesses and social gatherings last week.
Dr. Peter Jüni, who heads Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, said "it's too early to tell" if removing mask mandates is the right move at this time.
Speaking to CBC Radio's Metro Morning before the announcement, Jüni was asked if the province's move was a scientific or political decision.
"It's not supported by science right now because it's just too early. We would need at least one to two weeks more data to say, 'okay we're stable' and we just make it to the next step," he said.
Several other experts agree.
Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious diseases physician, says the removal of capacity limits, vaccine certificates and mask mandates is happening in a relatively short amount of time, and that mask requirements should have been kept in place until the weather gets warmer and virus activity naturally diminishes.
WATCH | Infectious disease specialist says masks 'imperfect' but still help:
"I'm as anxious as anyone to get out of the pandemic and to go back to something that was what we had before 2020, but on the other hand, we have to be very careful," Evans said.
"There's a kind of almost a narrative being driven here that everything's over. We're all done. Let's just move forward. And I think we need to just do that with a little bit more ... time-based caution."
The government's plan was also met with backlash from one of the largest education unions in the country.
In a news release, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) called the plan "premature" and said this will put students at risk of having in-person learning once again disrupted.
Isolation guideline changes starting Wednesday
Isolation guidelines are also being changed Wednesday for close contacts of someone with COVID-19 or who is symptomatic.
No one who is a close contact of a person outside their household with COVID-19 has to isolate now, though they are still recommended to wear a mask outside the home for 10 days and avoid high-risk people and settings.
If a household member tests positive or has symptoms, people do not need to isolate if they are 18 or older and have received a booster dose, if they are under 18 and have two vaccine doses, or if they tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days.
Ontario is also updating the way it reports COVID-19 deaths starting Friday. The province will classify whether COVID-19 caused a death, contributed to a death, or if the cause of death is unknown or missing. As well, Ontario will report deaths by vaccination status and age group, and remove from the cumulative total any deaths that are now classified as being unrelated to COVID-19.
Data provided Wednesday by the province indicates that the majority of reported COVID-19 deaths have been caused by the virus, with about another 20 per cent listed with COVID-19 as a contributing factor. Less than 10 per cent of the deaths are classified as being unrelated.
751 COVID-19 hospitalizations, 27 more deaths reported
Meanwhile, the province is reporting 751 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 27 more deaths linked to the virus on Wednesday.
Today's reported hospitalizations mark a slight dip from Tuesday when 779 were reported, and are down from 847 this time last week.
According to the Ministry of Health, about 46 per cent of those admitted to hospital were directly seeking treatment for COVID-19 symptoms, while 54 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive for the virus.
Of the hospitalizations reported, there are 241 patients in intensive care, marking a decrease from 246 on Tuesday and down from 273 exactly one week ago.
About 82 per cent of those patients were admitted to ICU specifically for the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons but also tested positive for the virus.
Ontario reported another 1,947 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, though Moore warned the actual number of new cases each day is likely 10 times higher than what is being reported through limited PCR testing.
The 27 additional deaths reported Wednesday push the official death toll to 12,618.
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With files from The Canadian Press