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Ontario fast-tracks easing COVID restrictions, Saskatchewan ends vaccine passport

Ontario ramped up plans to drop a raft of COVID-19 restrictions, including the province's vaccine certificate system, while Alberta schools opened Monday without mask mandates for children.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends a news conference at the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto, on Monday, February 14, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ontario ramped up plans to drop a raft of COVID-19 restrictions, including the province's vaccine certificate system, while Alberta schools opened Monday without mask mandates for children.

Saskatchewan residents also started the day with relaxed measures as the province lifted its proof of vaccine or a negative test requirement to enter most businesses. Meanwhile, Quebec said it would discuss ending its vaccine mandate.

As provinces tailored policies to their own COVID-19 trends, the Public Health Agency of Canada said there will be "variability" in when and how jurisdictions lift measures.

"With the decline of the Omicron wave, and as we transition away from the crisis phase, it is now time to rebalance our collective efforts towards a more sustainable approach to long term management of COVID-19," PHAC said in a statement. 

"As populations and health care capacities differ across jurisdictions, there will be variability in how each province, territory and community assesses risk and responds to the needs of their respective jurisdictions."

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said vaccine passports will end March 1, but masking requirements will remain for now.

Ford also said restrictions meant to lift next Monday, including capacity limits in restaurants, will instead lift this Thursday. Social gathering limits will also increase.

He insisted the change was not due to pressure from anti-vaccine mandate protesters who have occupied Ottawa and Windsor over the last several days.

Chief medical health officer Dr. Kieran Moore said the province's vaccine certificate system had "served its purpose" and was no longer needed.

"We are now down the slope from the peak of Omicron activity," Moore said.

Ford said Ontario is able to soon lift restrictions because public health indicators have been improving, with the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests dropping to 13 per cent from a peak of nearly 40 per cent.

Ontario reported 1,369 COVID-19 hospitalizations, down from the more than 4,000 on Jan. 18. The province also reported eight more deaths linked to the virus.

In Quebec, gyms and spas, which were closed in December, reopened at half capacity.

Quebec Premier François Legault said he will meet with public health officials to discuss whether the province's vaccine passport system should remain. He said he still needs approval from public health officials before loosening the requirement. 

"We want to remove most of the measures, but we have to be careful because of the hospital situation."

Quebec reported Monday 17 more deaths linked to the virus and a rise of 14 COVID-19 hospitalizations, bringing the total in the province to 2,095. 

In Alberta, children are no longer required to wear masks in schools. Children 12 and younger also don't have to wear masks in any setting.

The move has sparked criticism from some who say COVID-19 community transmission and the threat of the Omicron variant have not yet subsided significantly. 

The Alberta Federation of Labour, on behalf of five parents with immunocompromised children, asked court for an injunction on the change. But a judge ruled Monday there was "no evidence of irreparable harm," and dismissed the application.

Premier Jason Kenney on Twitter called the application "ridiculous" and said kids shouldn't be forced to wear masks.

Some students also walked out of classes early and protested at the legislature in support of teachers and health-care workers.

"I have many friends who are immunocompromised and they are terrified," said 17-year-old organizer Samuel Clark in Edmonton. 

There were 1,528 patients in Alberta hospitals with COVID-19, a decrease from last week of 38, including 124 in intensive care.

In Saskatchewan, which now reports its COVID-19 data once a week, the province ended its passport system. Requirements for people to wear masks in indoor public places and to self-isolate when they test positive for COVID-19 are expected to lift at the end of the month.

The province's chief medical officer has said the Omicron wave there has peaked but that hospitalizations will likely rise for the next week before tapering off.

Tamara Hinz of Saskatoon said she and her partner planned to enjoy Valentine's Day by ordering in from a restaurant. She said they will monitor COVID-19 trends in the coming weeks before mingling in crowds that now include the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Nik Selanos, co-owner of Memories Fine Dining and Bar in Regina, said he had a full house booked for the evening. He said customers have not expressed much hesitation over dining out without the health order in place.

"For the most part … they are fine with it," Selanos said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2022.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press