TORONTO — People holding large social gatherings in defiance of new limits could face fines of over $10,000, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday as he moved to crack down on the get-togethers he blames for spiking COVID-19 rates in three of the province’s largest regions.

Ford rolled out the new penalties, which he touted as the highest in the country, in response to rising virus rates in Toronto, Peel Region, and Ottawa.

Starting Friday in those regions, only 10 people will be allowed to gather indoors — down from the current limit of 25 — while the number for outdoor gatherings will drop to 25 from 100.

Along with the $10,000 penalty for event organizers, those attending the gatherings will face $750 fines.

“They must be a few fries short of Happy Meal, these people,” Ford said of those holding parties that break the rules. “I just don’t get it. They go out there, they know the rules and they just blatantly ignore it. They’re hurting families.”

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said Thursday he and other medical officials are monitoring infection rates in other regions of the province, and it’s possible the tightened restrictions could be expanded.

“Three (regions) is a start,” Dr. David Williams said. “It would be nice if we didn’t have to go beyond that, but I don’t rule out that we would have to go beyond that.”

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Ford said he took the step at the urging of the mayors and medical officers of health in the affected regions, who all asked the province to crack down on the social gatherings.

The rules will not apply to restaurants, movie theatres or weddings held at banquet halls, where public health guidelines are being followed, he said.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he is concerned about that decision because the city has identified the spread of COVID-19 at a number of weddings.

“Weddings are opportunities for crowds of people to get together … (and) in the end, these are places that it seems the virus is spreading. So, we’re going to have to have a look at how we can educate people better.”

The new rules will also not change the way schools in the affected areas are operating, said Health Minister Christine Elliott.

“What we have in our schools is a situation where people are in cohorts, they are wearing masks, they are achieving physical distancing that’s required, and following the hand-washing (guidelines),” she said.“None of this is happening in these unmonitored social gatherings.”

Liberal House Leader John Fraser said the new rules for social gatherings don’t jibe with the province’s stance on school reopenings, where critics say physical distancing isn’t possible in classrooms with nearly 30 students.

“The most important thing is clarity, and that hasn’t been coming from the government,” Fraser said.

The mayor of Markham, Ont., north of Toronto, said Thursday he was disappointed York Region was not also subject to the new restrictions as case counts there have risen there in recent weeks.

“We want to avoid becoming another COVID-19 hotspot,” Frank Scarpitti said in a statement. “I have long called for a consistent and regional approach, especially in large urban areas.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath clashed with Ford during question period at the Ontario legislature earlier in the day, pressing the premier to release his promised plan to deal with a possible second wave of COVID-19.

She said the government’s “lack of readiness” has led to long lineups at testing centres in recent days, and a clearer plan was needed weeks ago.

“This Ford government is once again reacting to a crisis instead of preparing and ensuring that things were in place before the crisis is upon us,” Horwath said. “That has been the problem all along.”

Ford — who has repeatedly asked for the co-operation of opposition parties during the pandemic — accused Horwath of maligning the work of front line workers.

“The leader of the Opposition is missing in action for five months — nowhere to be found, nor to be heard (from),” Ford said. “Everyone is co-operating across the country, no matter what political stripe you are, everyone’s pitching in. And then we have the armchair quarterback over there, pretending they have all the answers.”

Case count update

Ontario reported 293 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, and three new deaths related to the coronavirus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Toronto reported 85 new cases, with 63 in Peel Region and 39 in Ottawa. She said 70 per cent of the new cases were in people under the age of 40.

The total number of cases in Ontario now stands at 45,676, which includes 2,825 deaths and 40,424 cases classified as resolved.

Ontario also reported 21 new COVID-19 cases in schools, including at least five among students. The new cases bring the total number of schools with a reported case to 51 out of the province’s 4,828.

The government also introduced promised legislation on Thursday that would freeze residential rent for 2021.

The Progressive Conservatives said the bill, if passed, will halt rent increases for 1.7 million renters across Ontario.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2020.