Families in Ontario can now expand the number of people they have close contact with to 10, as the province moved Friday to further loosen public health restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier Doug Ford unveiled the new advice on “social circles” from the province’s chief medical officer of health on the same day new rules expanding group gatherings and reopening business in some parts of the province came into effect.
The new guidelines from Dr. David Williams mean physical distancing does not need to be practised between members of the same circle.
Ford said if a household has fewer than 10 people they can add to their circle, but a person can only be part of one group.
“We know there are friends, family, and loved ones you haven’t been able to hug or come in close contact with in months,” Ford said. “And today, the public health guidelines will be changing to introduce social circles.”
The new guidelines on social circles come into effect immediately and apply across the province, but people in a group are advised to continue to maintain physical distancing with anyone outside of their circle.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the concept will help families with child- and elder-care needs, and reduce social isolation during the pandemic.
“We know that there have been many people who have been suffering from social isolation and we’re seeing many more cases of mental health needs,” she said. “The social circle should certainly help (but) that’s not going to take all of those issues away.”
The government said people at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 may not want to participate.
Ford stressed the new social circle advice is just that, and will not be enforced.
“The social circle police aren’t going to be knocking on your door. We trust you’re going to be doing the right thing,” he said.
Meanwhile, most Ontario regions outside the Toronto and Hamilton areas were allowed to reopen more businesses on Friday, with some asking GTA residents to stay away.
The second stage of the province’s reopening includes restaurant patios, hair salons and swimming pools.
The limit on social gatherings also increased from five to 10 provincewide, though people must still stay two metres away from anyone outside their own household.
Child-care centres across Ontario are also allowed to reopen, but it’s not yet clear how many will be able to implement new pandemic safety measures immediately.
The current pandemic restrictions will stay in place for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, which have a high concentration of COVID-19 cases.
Jeff Lehman, mayor of Barrie, Ont., said waterfront parking lots will be open only to residents of his city.
“This is not the time for day-trippers to come up from the GTA,” Lehman said Thursday.
Also reopening this weekend in Barrie will be about 50 restaurant patios. Distancing requirements will be in place and most will operate on a reservation system, requiring people to call ahead, the mayor said. Other facilities, such as splash pads, will reopen in the coming week.
Border regions such as Windsor-Essex, Lambton County and Niagara, as well as Haldimand-Norfolk, which has seen an outbreak among migrant workers, are also being held back from moving to Stage 2.
Ontario reported 182 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, an increase of 0.6 per cent over the previous day and the lowest daily number of cases since late March.
The new number brings the province to a total of 31,726 cases. The province also reported 11 new deaths for a total of 2,498.
The federal government on Friday also extended the deployment of Canadian Forces members to a number of long-term care homes in Ontario.
The soldiers were initially called in to help in a number of the province’s hardest-hit homes in late April. They will now remain at the facilities until June 26.
Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said in a statement that the province was grateful for the expanded deployment.
“This extension will ensure that the high-risk homes to which they are deployed will continue to benefit from their skill and efforts to fight COVID-19,” she said.