TORONTO - Ontario announced new restrictions for Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa on Friday in an attempt to bring surging COVID-19 infections under control, a move critics said ought to have come days earlier.

Premier Doug Ford, who had repeatedly argued he hadn't seen enough data to justify stronger measures, said the government had to take action to avert a crisis.

Starting Saturday, indoor dining at restaurants and bars in the three hot spot regions will be prohibited, while gyms, movie theatres and casinos will be closed. The measures stay will be in place for at least 28 days.

The government is also asking all Ontarians to leave their homes only for essential purposes. Schools and places of worship remain open across the province.

"All trends are going in the wrong direction," Ford said. "Left unchecked, we risk worse case scenarios first seen in Italy and New York City."

The new restrictions come as Ontario marked a record 939 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, most of them in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa. Those areas have consistently reported the majority of new cases in recent weeks.

Ford said that despite his resistance to further restrictions, the information presented to him by his health advisors on Thursday evening had changed his mind.

"I stood up here for days, fighting, saying we've got to keep (businesses) going, but after the numbers I saw yesterday ... if I didn't make this decision now, I'd be negligent," he said, adding that the government has pledged $300 million in relief for impacted businesses.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health said the sharp increase in daily cases was very concerning and action was required.

Dr. David Williams said the new measures will take the three regions back to a "modified Stage Two" of the province's pandemic response plan, which saw restrictions on non-essential businesses earlier this year.

"If everybody had adhered to all our public health measures around distancing, mask wearing, staying at home if you're ill, social circles down to the details, these types of steps ... would not have been necessary," he said.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, who is advising the province on its pandemic response, said taking the targeted action could mean avoiding broader province-wide restrictions down the road.

"Jurisdictions that are intervening early are getting better control of the pandemic," he said.

Last week, health officials warned that Ontario could see 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day by mid-October, and that rising infections among young people were driving the spread of the virus among all demographics.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath criticized Ford for waiting until Friday to announce the new restrictions.

"It's shocking the Mr. Ford was the last person in the province to see that this crisis was coming," she said. "The premier dithered, he delayed, he pinched pennies when experts have been calling for stronger, tougher measures for some time."

Groups like the Ontario Hospital Association and Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, as well as Toronto's medical officer of health had all been calling for targeted restrictions.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario welcomed the new measures but said the time it took for them to be announced made her question the advice the premier was receiving.

"I wish (Ford) had listened earlier," she said. "But at the end of the day, what I was asking is that we cannot get to Thanksgiving without more serious restrictions."

Toronto Mayor John Tory said Friday that he understands people might be concerned with how long it took the province to act, but his top concern was that it happened at all.

"The bottom line is we ended up in the right place," said Tory. "I know the premier agonized over this file."

Some in the business community, however, expressed dismay at the new restrictions.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the measures a "crushing blow," noting it would be the second time in the pandemic some businesses would have to close.

Cineplex Inc. chief executive and president Ellis Jacob said the government's measures were "excessive" and didn't take into account cinemas' efforts to follow public health rules.

"Our local theatre teams have worked exceedingly hard since our reopening to keep over half a million Ontario movie-lovers safe across the province," he said, referring to the increased cleanings, limited audience numbers and staggered screenings implemented across the country.

Meanwhile, Restaurants Canada said it anticipates the loss of tens of thousands of jobs as a result of the measures.

The new restrictions also prohibit personal care services where face coverings must be removed, such as beard trimming and make up application.

They also limit team sports to training sessions only, and impose new public health rules for wedding receptions that include gathering limits of 10 indoors and 25 outdoors.

— with files from Tara Deschamps and John Chidley-Hill

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020.

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