Ontario easing capacity restrictions on indoor sporting arenas on Thursday

Toronto Maple Leafs fans celebrate their team's first goal of the game against the Montreal Canadiens during first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 13, 2021. (CP/file)

The province of Ontario is easing capacity restrictions for indoor venues, including sporting arenas, starting on Thursday — and could lift the limits altogether on March 1, as long as public health and health system indicators continue to improve.

The change to capacity numbers paves the way for the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto Marlies, Toronto Rock and OHL teams to host more fans during their upcoming home games. The Maple Leafs' game on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins will be the first major-league game affected by the change.

“Given how well Ontario has done in the Omicron wave we are able to fast track our reopening plan,” Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, said on Monday. “This is great news and a sign of just how far we’ve come together in our fight against the virus. While we aren’t out of the woods just yet we are moving in the right direction.”

Prior to Monday's announcement, sports facilities were allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity or 500 spectators, whichever number was lower, meaning all professional sports teams in the province effectively had a 500-spectator limit.

The previous timeline for easing capacity limits would have seen the restrictions lifted on Feb. 21, four days later than the new plan.

Ontario says it also intends to lift its COVID-19 vaccine certificate system on March 1. Masking requirements will stay in place for now, but the province says a timeline to lift them will come later.

When announcing the change to capacity restrictions, Ford emphasized that his government's decision to ease its public health measures was not the result of the blockades that have happened in Windsor or the protesters in Ottawa, who presence has disrupted day-to-day life in the nation's capital for weeks.

"Today's announcement is not because of what's happening in Ottawa or Windsor but in spite of it," Ford said. "We're moving forward as a province and a country, and this chaos is not going to be tolerated, I promise you that."

Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 have been trending downwards in recent weeks, continuing the trend that has been seen since measures were implemented early in January to stem the spread of the virus, which had been proliferating at a near-unprecedented rate due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Ontario reported 1,540 hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 on Sunday, 402 of which were patients in intensive care, a decrease from what was seen on Saturday, when 1,704 hospitalizations were reported and 414 ICU patients.

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