MIDDLESEX CENTRE, ONT. -- Middlesex-London and Elgin-Oxford are officially in the orange-restrict zone under Ontario's COVID-19 response framework.

The change will took effect at midnight Monday and will remain in place for at least two weeks.

The decision comes as Middlesex-London marks two full weeks with no deaths.

"It's something we absolutely should be celebrating as a community, and that celebration should not be in large numbers indoors. Let's make sure we keep it as safe as possible," says Middlesex-London Health Unit Medical Officer of Health Dr. Chris Mackie.

But, Mackie adds that an increase in COVID-19 variants in the region remains a concern.

"We're up to a dozen cases locally of variants of concern. We've had four come in over the last day-and-a-half, which increased us from eight up to 12 variants of concern, so that certainly represents an acceleration...it's still a relatively low proportion overall...but it is concerning to see that number rising."

The largest change with the lower restriction level is regarding gathering sizes in organized venues.

Under orange, up to 50 people can now gather indoors and 100 outdoors as long as physical distancing can be maintained in places like restaurants, bars and event spaces.

Religious services can now move to 30 per cent capacity indoors or 100 people outdoors.

The limit on private gatherings remains at 10 indoors and 25 outdoors with distancing and masking protocols in place, however health officials continue to recommend not gathering indoors.

Many restrictions that were in place under red continue, but locations like restaurants and bars can now remain open until 10 p.m. and some dancing, singing, karaoke and musical performances are allowed with restrictions.

Movie theatres and performance venues can also reopen with a limit of 50 people indoors and a number of restrictions in place including masking, screening and collection of contact information.

Full details on the rules under orange are available here.

As to when the region might move to even lighter restrictions, Mackie says it's too early to speculate.

"A lot can change in COVID in two weeks...if (cases) are at the same level in two weeks from now, then you know there's a strong case to be made that it may be reasonable to reduce restrictions, but if there's an increase then that really changes the picture."

Businesses see change as potential lifeline

Loosening restrictions will came as a breath of fresh air for the pandemic-weary, and may extend a lifeline to local businesses.

“It’s pretty good to see everything opening back up,” says Matthew Heier as he walks to Richmond Row. “I’m pretty excited.”

But others like Chris Drummond urge caution, “If we open up too quickly, we may take a step in the wrong direction and go back to the lockdown."

Still, the return of more regular faces at tables will translate to the return of regular faces on the payroll, according to Mike Smith at Toboggan Brewing Company.

“It’s such short notice, you don’t know what (zone) colour you’re going to be, you don’t know who to schedule,” adds Smith, “But it’s good to get some people back to work.”

Smaller restaurants will also benefit.

Owner Bill Spigos won’t be able to fill all 40 seats inside Prince Albert’s Diner, But he will be able to safely accommodate more than 10.

“We’ve gotten so used to being in the red (zone), and doing all those things,” says Spigos. “I think baby steps is a good way to go.”