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Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions during a news conference at the Ontario Legislature, in Toronto, on March 16, 2020.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Just hours after Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government’s health experts said they did not believe restaurants and bars should close in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province changed course and said it was time for these businesses to voluntarily shut their doors.

The dramatic shift came as the Ontario Premier pledged to protect employees who cannot go to work because of the virus, scrapped plans for a budget on March 25 and warned against hoarding toilet paper or other necessities – as concern about the virus continues to grow.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, said the change of heart on shutting down restaurants and other businesses followed the day’s moves from federal officials, including Ottawa’s move to restrict entry into Canada and the advice to limit gatherings to 50 people or fewer.

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Speaking at Queen’s Park, Dr. Williams said all recreation centres, gyms, libraries, private schools, churches and places of worship, daycare centres and bars and restaurants should close. However, restaurants would be able to offer takeout or delivery. Ontario has already closed all its public schools until at least April 6.

At Toronto city hall, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, echoed the announcement, adding that theatres and nightclubs should also close their doors at 12:01 Tuesday morning. She warned that businesses that fail to shutter voluntarily could face orders under the provincial Health Protection and Promotion Act, which includes fines of up to $25,000 a day.

“This is not a decision I make lightly" Dr. de Villa said. "Our hospitality industry contributes significantly to the life of our city. We are taking this action to protect the health of our city.”

To avoid close contact on the city’s transit system, she urged Torontonians to travel at off-peak times and asked employers to be flexible with schedules and allowing employees to work from home. The TTC had just cancelled an offer of free fares on Tuesday for St. Patrick’s Day partygoers on several busy streetcar routes, over concerns about crowding and COVID-19.

The province’s associate medical officer of health, Barbara Yaffe, said most of the province’s increase in new COVID-19 cases – 32 across the province in the last 24 hours – were linked to U.S. travel. But she said the number of new cases being investigated means she cannot rule out “community transmission” – that the disease is now spreading locally.

Before the call for closings was announced, Mr. Ford and Dr. Williams told a news conference earlier on Monday that the government did not yet need to order all restaurants, bars and non-essential retailers to shut down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Mr. Ford said “everything is on the table,” in the quickly evolving situation, and his Minister of Health, Christine Elliott, said Ontarians should be discouraged from heading to crowded bars for St. Patrick’s Day.

Mr. Ford outlined plans for legislation to protect the jobs of quarantined and self-isolated workers, as well as the jobs of those who need to care for children locked out of schools or daycares. He also said the legislation would suspend the right of employers to demand doctors’ notes from sick employees – reversing a policy his government brought in when it scrapped the previous Liberal government’s new labour legislation in 2018.

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Mr. Ford also told Ontarians that there was no need to panic-buy food or other supplies, saying he had spoken to retail business leaders who reassured him shelves would remain stocked with goods.

“There’s plenty of toilet paper,” he said.

Monte McNaughton, Mr. Ford’s Minister of Labour, said the coming legislation would protect jobs of those who cannot work due to COVID-19 for as long as the disease persists. He said it would be “crystal clear” that workers would not be required to show sick notes if they cannot show up for work.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips said the government would no longer issue a full budget as planned on March 25, but would instead release an economic update that would include added health spending to combat COVID-19. Mr. Ford has already announced a $100-million contingency fund for health costs.

The news conference came minutes after Ontario’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped by 32 to a total of 177, according to numbers posted on the province’s website. That’s a smaller increase than the 43 new cases announced in the province Sunday morning. Five cases are listed as resolved.

Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says her party will co-operate on the emergency legislation. She has repeatedly demanded that the government scrap its sick-note policy and take other measures to help workers. Ms. Horwath said more needs to be done to protect those who lose pay while in quarantine, or who miss rent or mortgage payments.

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The Ontario Legislature could resume as early as this week in order to pass the legislation.

With a report from Oliver Moore

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