Windsor-Essex, last Ontario region in Stage 2, finally moving to Stage 3 of reopening

The Ontario government has cleared Windsor-Essex to move into Stage 3 of reopening on Wednesday.

Ontario government has cleared the region to enter into the next phase Wednesday

A man prepares for a nasal swab at a drive-thru COVID-19 test site in Windsor on May 29. On Monday, the region was cleared to move into Stage 3 of reopening - the last area in Ontario to do so. (Thilelli Chouikrat/Radio-Canada)

The Ontario government has cleared Windsor-Essex to move into Stage 3 of reopening as of Wednesday, Aug. 12.

The region has seen a decline in new COVID-19 cases over the last week and an increased capacity at local hospitals — both factors the government has outlined as key criteria for moving forward. 

Over the weekend, 11 new cases were reported.

"Thanks to the collective efforts of our front-line health-care workers, public health experts and the people of Windsor-Essex, more businesses in the region can hang up their 'Open for Business' sign and more people can go back to work as of this Wednesday," said Premier Doug Ford in a press statement.

"As all of Ontario now enters into Stage 3, I ask everyone to remain on their guard and keep following the public health measures to protect the tremendous progress we've made and keep this deadly virus at bay."

Most of the province moved into Stage 3 on July 17, with the exception of Windsor-Essex, the Greater Toronto Area and other parts of southern Ontario. Toronto and Peel Region were cleared to enter Stage 3 on July 31.

The region's medical officer of health, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, welcomed the news on Monday but cautioned residents to continue to practise safety measures advised by public health. 

He said he would feel more comfortable "if we can see no further increase in cases as we are opening more. Please be mindful that moving to Stage 3 does not mean the virus is gone."

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit reported 11 new COVID-19 cases Monday and the region has seen a steady decline of new cases over the last week. 

The curve of new COVID cases in Windsor-Essex has declined over the last week, after seeing major spikes in May and June due to outbreaks on Essex County farms. (Windsor-Essex County Health Unit)

Significant spikes were reported in May and June as outbreaks swiftly spread among agricultural workers in the region — primarily those visiting Canada under the federal government's Temporary Foreign Worker Program. 

Of the 2,379 cases seen in Windsor-Essex since the onset of the pandemic, 1,137 cases were among agricultural workers and two migrant farm workers from Mexico have died after contracting the disease here.

"Right now, the farms we are dealing with — obviously the outbreak is under control on those farms but there are new farms and outbreaks that continue to come," Ahmed said Monday. 

The medical officer has been a vocal advocate for better protocols around migrant worker's accommodations, which he has attributed to being a major factor in the spread of the virus among that population. 

The outbreaks on Essex County farms prompted the province to send in emergency medical teams and the Red Cross for aid. 

Restaurants readying for indoor dining

Business owners across Essex County have been eagerly awaiting the go-ahead to open their doors, but for some there may still be a short wait to have all precautions in place.

"To be really ready? Hopefully by Friday," said Nicole Sekela, owner of Rock Bottom Bar and Grill in the city's west end. "It kind of feels like I'm opening up again for the first time."

WATCH | It may take some time for some restaurants to reopen:

Reopening a Windsor-Essex restaurant for Stage 3

1 year ago
Nicole Sekela, owner of Rock Bottom Bar and Grill, says this week will be a "scramble" as she prepares to open the doors to dine-in customers. 0:28

Although hers is an established business that's been offering take-out during the pandemic, Sekela says it will be difficult to bring in all the food and Ontario beer needed for the opening. That means potentially holding off on the ever-popular two-for-one Wednesday wing special.

"Right now because we use fresh wings from Ontario we've been having trouble getting enough supply in, so I don't think we'll be able to pull it off this Wednesday," said Sekela. 

But more importantly, she's excited to bring back staff, even though the next few days will be "a scramble."

"We just miss all the customers and we can't wait to see them," she said. "Please be patient with us because we're trying to keep everybody safe and there's a few extra steps we have to take into account for."

More indoor activities 

Indoor dining in restaurants is just one of the activities permitted under Stage 3 of the province's reopening plan. 

With significant health and safety measures in place — including physical distancing, enhanced cleaning protocols and Plexiglas barriers — live performing arts shows and the reopening of movie theatres and playgrounds will also be allowed beginning Wednesday. 

Also allowed are indoor gatherings of up to 50 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people. However, according to the plan, physical distancing remains a requirement for all people who are not from the same household or established social circle. 

Casinos and charitable gaming establishments can open but must follow gathering limits and physical distancing measures. Table games will remain closed for now.

"We aren't ready for that," said Windsor resident Robert Taylor, adding that the province's decision came a bit too soon for him. "I wouldn't feel comfortable going to the casino. Keep everything closed until they get a handle on this."

Taylor said he's also concerned about an influx of the virus when the border eventually opens to non-essential travel. 

CBC Windsor spoke with a few Windsorites to get their reaction on Stage 3 of reopening this Wednesday. Robert Taylor, left, is not welcoming the news while Kathy Reese, centre and Ida Kifle say they think the community is ready. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Across the Detroit River in Michigan, there have been 87,403 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 6,500 people have died there. Some cases in Windsor-Essex have been linked to those working and traveling to the state. 

Back in Windsor, Kathy Reese, who works at a spa, says she's happy with Monday's announcement.  

"I'm pretty excited about it. Where I work all our guests can now come in for facials and stuff like that," she said. 

But in-restaurant dining may have to wait for her and others. 

"Me personally, I wouldn't feel comfortable because I have pre-existing conditions," said another resident, Ida Kifle.

"But I think if everybody continues to do what they're supposed to do, then we can move forward like other cities.

The province says "nightclubs are not yet safe to open," except to serve food and drinks. Singing and dancing "may be performed by a person or group at the restaurant or bar with restrictions." As for dancing, that can only be done "by someone working at the establishment with restrictions."

Want to eat at a buffet? You'll have to wait, as they can't open in Stage 3. Saunas, steam rooms, bath houses and oxygen bars also have to stay closed.

The plan also says that people gathering inside for religious services, weddings or funerals can continue to fill up to 30 per cent of a room's capacity in Stage 3.

It also dictates that sport facilities and gyms can reopen but notes that physical distancing must be maintained, "except if playing a team sport or as needed for personal training."

Amusement parks and water parks are currently not being allowed to reopen in Stage 3.

With files from Stacey Janzer, Sanjay Maru

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