The Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus held a “vigorous debate” about reopening the province during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some members pushing for more businesses to resume, while others advocated for a slower approach.
Premier Doug Ford acknowledged there is a difference of opinion in urban and rural parts of the province, after the government released details of the first stage in its reopening plan. Mr. Ford said caucus and cabinet members “debated this to death” but final decisions are ultimately made by the province’s health experts.
“We have to be methodical, we have to be super cautious opening up,” Mr. Ford said at Queen’s Park on Friday.
“We vetted this upside down, sideways, we went to the stakeholders … talked to a lot of municipalities about it, talked to the people and we brought it back and debated it within caucus.”
The first of the province’s three-stage approach begins Tuesday, which allows all construction projects to resume, scheduled surgeries to begin and retail stores with street-front entrances to open, but not restaurants, hair salons or other medical services such as dentists or optometrists. It also does not loosen guidelines on social gatherings, although the government has said more information on that is coming next week. Golf courses and boat marinas can open on Saturday.
Even as Mr. Ford declared a state of emergency in mid-March, his officials continued conversations with stakeholders in preparation for reopening, with the knowledge that shutting down the economy is easier than restarting it. Manufacturing in the province did not fully cease, allowing some companies to pivot to making personal protective equipment for front-line workers. Government officials also monitored essential businesses such as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which has continued serving customers in both rural and urban Ontario throughout the pandemic.
Decisions about the Stage 1 businesses were made in conjunction with the civil service, labour organizations and the province’s health command table, which includes Health Minister Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams. The government’s jobs and recovery committee, chaired by Finance Minister Rod Phillips, held 45 round tables in the community – via online platforms such as Zoom – including 28 with Prabmeet Sarkaria, Associate Minister of Small Business. The committee met twice in the past week and plans were brought to cabinet on Tuesday.
While dentists, optometrists and physiotherapists are not included in the initial stage – and housekeepers and nannies are – professional colleges are finalizing guidelines to determine how to safely reopen.
The plan was first proposed three weeks ago as part of a “framework" for reopening, which did not initially include any dates. Mr. Ford said at the time the document was a “road map, it’s not a calendar," and was dependent on COVID-19 rates continuing to fall, as well as the province’s hospital capacity.
Progressive Conservative sources say there was initially frustration among some MPPs about a lack of detail, with small-business owners concerned about making end’s meet and being able to pay rent. That has dissipated, sources said, as more details were revealed this week.
On Friday, Mr. Ford also told commercial landlords to apply for the federal rent relief program to ease the burden on small businesses. “You know what drives me crazy? I can’t stand these vicious landlords," he said.
Mr. Phillips’ parliamentary assistant, Stan Cho, MPP for the north Toronto riding of Willowdale, said there was “passionate discussion” in caucus about reopening, with some members pushing the government to move faster. A former realtor, Mr. Cho said he understands what small-business owners are going through.
“There’s frustration, there’s fear, there’s anxiety, sometimes there’s anger," said Mr. Cho, a non-voting member of the jobs committee. But he said he agrees with the Premier’s cautious approach, in the face of a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. “If we have to go through this all over again, that is going to be more painful," he said.
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