Improving health indicators, such as a stable COVID-19 test positivity rate and declining hospitalizations, as well as Ontario's high vaccination rates and the availability of antiviral treatments, allow for these steps, the chief medical officer of health said Wednesday.
``You have to recognize you can't mandate masking forever, that it has to be eventually an individual choice based on an individual's risk assessment,'' Dr. Kieran Moore said.
``We're at that point by March 21st, that we're asking Ontarians to do an individual assessment, acknowledging that the risk remains, but that we're well over the peak of activity across Ontario and we have to learn to live with this virus.''
The announcement comes as 1,974 new COVID-19 cases were reported Wednesday, though Moore has said that limits on testing mean that the true number is likely 10 times that amount, or more than 19,000 cases.
Moore said masking requirements may need to return if a new variant emerges. In the meantime, he encouraged people to be kind to those who choose to continue wearing masks and said he would personally keep wearing one in a mall or busy big-box store. Moore also ``strongly recommended'' people who are vulnerable to keep masking.
Ottawa Public Health noted in a tweet that wearing masks helps protect others, such as those who are immunocompromised or are older. ``Your mask protects them,'' the health unit wrote. ``Thanks for wearing it.''
Premier Doug Ford said at an unrelated announcement Wednesday that the world has learned a lot since March 2020 and Ontario is in much better shape now.
``We're going to move forward cautiously, and if someone wants to keep (a mask) on, God bless them, and good for them,'' he said in Brantford, Ont. ``But I know a lot of people don't want to keep them on.''
The next step in Ontario's reopening will come on March 14, when mandatory vaccinate-or-test policies end for workers in schools, child-care settings, hospitals and long-term care. The long-term care ministry had been set to mandate booster doses for staff on that date.
Individual organizations will have the authority to keep their own requirements in place, and most hospitals have said they will continue their strict vaccine mandates.
On March 21, masking requirements in most settings will be removed - including in schools and child-care settings - except for public transit, long-term care, retirement homes, other congregate settings, and health-care settings. The province will continue to send masks and rapid antigen tests to schools and businesses.
A coalition of children's hospitals, including Toronto's SickKids and CHEO in Ottawa, had urged the province to keep masks in schools for at least two weeks after March Break, saying that public health measures are what have kept schools open.
``We encourage everyone to continue masking in schools, if they are able,'' the hospitals wrote Wednesday. ``We all want the pandemic to be a memory for our kids, not part of their day-to-day. But we're not quite there yet.''
The president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario expressed concern that lifting mask mandates in schools so soon would lead to another disruption to in-person learning and that the move is politically driven.
``Throughout the pandemic, Ontarians have relied on public health officials to lead with a science- and evidence-based approach,'' Karen Brown said in a statement.
``Unfortunately, it appears that a fast-approaching June election is influencing politicians' decisions to lift COVID-19 safety measures.''
Moore said his decisions and recommendations to government are based on science and ``have not been affected by any understanding of the political system.''
In addition to masking, other measures in schools, such as cohorting and daily on-site screening for symptoms will also end on March 21, as will all regulatory requirements for businesses, such as to do ``passive'' screening and have COVID-19 safety plans.
On April 27, all remaining mask rules will be lifted and remaining emergency orders and directives will be lifted or expire, except that officials say isolation requirements for those who've tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms are part of ongoing guidance.
But isolation guidelines are being changed Wednesday for close contacts of someone with COVID-19 or who is symptomatic.
No one who is a close contact of a person outside their household has to isolate now, though they are still recommended to wear a mask outside the home for 10 days and avoid high-risk people and settings. If a household member has COVID-19 or symptoms, people do not need to isolate if they are 18 or older and have received a booster dose, if they are under 18 and have two vaccine doses, or if they tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous 90 days.
Ontario is also updating its reporting on COVID-19 deaths starting Friday. The province will classify whether COVID-19 caused a death, contributed to a death, or if the cause of death is unknown or missing. As well, Ontario will report deaths by vaccination status and age group, and remove from the cumulative total any deaths that are now classified as being unrelated to COVID-19.
Data provided Wednesday by the province indicates that the majority of reported COVID-19 deaths have been caused by the virus, with about another 20 per cent listed with COVID-19 as a contributing factor. Less than 10 per cent of the deaths are classified as being unrelated.