Ontario is set to lift capacity for venues that require proof of vaccination, like gyms, restaurants and casinos. While some Torontonians are optimistic about the prospects, others are uneasy.
The provincial government announced the limits on indoor gatherings put in place during the pandemic will be lifted at 12:01 a.m. on Monday Oct. 25. Businesses will be able to operate at full capacity provided their clients are vaccinated.
While the timing of the announcement has some worried, other people, like the University of Toronto’s Dionne Aleman, an expert on COVID-19 modelling and how it spreads in an urban environment, disagree.
“It’s reasonable to begin lifting capacity restrictions now with masking requirements still in place indoors,” Aleman said. “Case counts have been steady and low for a few weeks and, while we would only just now start to be able to detect any bumps from Thanksgiving, it’s unlikely that any increase in cases would be large enough to meaningfully change overall incidence rates and hospitalization numbers.”
Despite her optimism, Aleman stressed the government must be ready to act if case numbers rise again.
“As with all pandemic related decisions, the province has to be willing to reinstate capacity restrictions if case counts or hospitalizations do significantly increase two to three weeks after further reopening,” said Aleman.
Toronto’s medical officer of health also agreed with the move.
“A slow and cautious approach to reopening — one that leverages the protection afforded to us by vaccination — is indeed the best approach,” Dr. Eileen de Villa said in a city press release Oct. 22. “As restrictions are lifted and as we increase our interaction with each other, it is more important than ever that everyone get vaccinated if they are eligible.”
However, other Toronto residents, like entrepreneur and bodybuilder Tristan Williams, preferred that capacity limits stay in place despite how much of a hindrance that could be for him.
“I’ve been in a lot of gyms, and it was impossible to keep them sanitary before [the pandemic],” said Williams. “It’s great that everyone that comes to my gym is vaccinated, but I still won’t feel comfortable if the gym is as crowded as it was two years ago.”
Williams does say however that lifting capacity will be good for the gym. More people allowed in the gym will lead to an increase in shifts and a higher demand for personal trainers.
Staying home from the mall
Williams changed his routine when the pandemic began. He limited his gym routine to exercises he couldn’t do at home and now that capacity limits in Ontario are lifted, he’s opted to change gyms entirely for his workouts.
“It isn’t great for when I want to work out,” he said. “There was more space for me to do my routines and I wasted less time waiting for [popular equipment like] the benchpress.”
One place that the new capacity limits won’t tempt him to return to is the mall.
“I loved going to Scarborough Town Centre and Yorkdale as a kid but online shopping has changed the way I shop,” Williams said. “Last Christmas was the easiest and least stressed out I’ve ever been, doing my Christmas shopping.”
The case numbers may be steady for now, but population density in cities like Toronto is still a concern when it comes to containing a possible outbreak. Aleman is well aware of the risks but she is encouraged by the city’s vaccination rate.
“While Toronto is the densest city in Ontario and therefore at most risk of COVID spread when capacity restrictions are lifted, Toronto is also among the highest-vaccinated areas in Ontario at 74 per cent of the total population fully vaccinated (83 per cent of Canadians over 12), which affords a tremendous amount of protection,” Aleman said.
She did caution that the Delta variant has moved the goalposts with regards to herd immunity.
“As we all know by now, the Delta variant is far more contagious than previous variants,” said Aleman. “And most studies indicate at least 90 per cent of the total population will need to be vaccinated to confidently end pandemic spread.”
According to Aleman, children under 12 getting vaccinated will be the key to reaching that number as well as maintaining mask discipline while indoors.
“Elementary schools are currently the largest source of new COVID-19 cases, which is unsurprising since most kids in elementary schools are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” Aleman said. “So, elementary schools continue to pose a high-risk environment regardless of the city.”
Instead of worrying about restaurants, elementary schools should remain focused on the fight against COVID-19 if we want to have a chance of getting through the pandemic.
“Proper mask usage in schools will provide significant protection for our kids, and needs to be continued until all kids can be vaccinated,” Aleman said. “Surveillance measures need to be modified to better understand COVID spread in schools, since many kids are asymptomatic. Ontario is currently rolling out plans for better testing in schools, which will give us more information, which in turn will allow for more targeted and less disruptive interventions when necessary.”
Despite all the work that still needs to be done, Aleman said Ontario is on the right track.
“Kids aged 5-11 will optimistically be fully vaccinated by the end of the year which will bring us very close to that number,” Aleman said. “The continuing key for Toronto, and all areas of Ontario, is to get vaccinated and wear a mask indoors. We’ve done a fantastic job on those fronts so far, especially compared to the rest of the world, so we just need to hold the course and each continue to do our part for a little while longer.”