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Residents of Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood surround the Elm Grove Living Centre long-term care home, on May 30, 2020.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Ontario has announced a “cautious restart” to allowing visits to long-term care residents in facilities without COVID-19 outbreaks as long as visitors test negative for the virus.

Premier Doug Ford said Thursday the government will allow some visits at long-term care facilities, retirement homes and group homes to resume as of June 18, with conditions.

“I know this day we have all been desperately been waiting for, but we can’t take this progress for granted. We can’t forget that these settings are still vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks,” he said.

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Ontario paused “non-essential” visits to seniors’ facilities in mid-March, meaning family members were shut out from visiting loved ones, in a bid to contain the spread of the virus – something Mr. Ford said Thursday was difficult but necessary.

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As part of the rules announced Thursday, long-term care homes that are free of COVID-19 will allow a minimum of one visit per resident each week, with visits only allowed outdoors. Retirement homes, where residents are generally more independent, may resume indoor visits as well, at the discretion of the home. In group homes and other residential-care settings, two people are allowed to visit, but only outside. All visitors must practise physical distancing and will have to have tested negative for COVID-19 within the past two weeks. They will also have to wear masks.

While the Ontario government said it will allow outdoor visits to long-term care residents as of next week, it has not established a program allowing family caregivers to go inside facilities to help with tasks such as feeding and bathing. Other provinces, including Quebec and British Columbia, allow caregivers to provide assistance.

Advocates and relatives have been calling for Ontario to allow family caregivers back into seniors’ homes to help loved ones, some of whom have been malnourished or mistreated throughout the pandemic as facilities struggled to contain the spread of the virus.

Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said Thursday the province is “actively considering” allowing family caregivers back into homes.

“We have to really look at the complexity of this and understand how we open up and make sure that our residents can get the support that they need from their family members, when it’s safe to do so,” Dr. Fullerton said.

The move to finally allow visits is long overdue, said Laura Tamblyn Watts, chief executive officer of CanAge, a national seniors advocacy organization. The consequences of keeping visitors and caregivers out for three months have been disastrous, she said.

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“It’s a life-and-death decision,” Ms. Tamblyn Watts said. “We are hearing consistently of people dying of malnutrition, people dying of loneliness, people dying from disconnection from their relationships.”

Ms. Tamblyn Watts called on the Ontario government to quickly design and implement a policy allowing caregivers to help out inside homes.

“Visits outside, while they’re very important, don’t replace the care and feeding and bathing and support that an essential caregiver can give," she said.

Jane Meadus, a lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said it would be far easier to allow visitors into homes that don’t have COVID-19 outbreaks than to move some residents with significant mobility challenges outside.

“I’m concerned that there will still be a limitation on people who are in long-term care and who may not be able to go outside and there will continue to be restrictions,” she said.

Ella Soper’s grandmother Teresa Brown lives at the Isabel and Arthur Meighen Manor in Toronto, where 48 residents have died of COVID-19. She said a distanced outdoor visit with her 106-year-old grandmother, who is blind, hard of hearing and bedridden, would likely prove challenging.

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“She’s still not going to understand why we can’t be close to her,” Ms. Soper said. “I think that this is designed in the interests of the needs of more independent and able-bodied residents. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all approach.”

As of Thursday, 65 of the province’s 630 nursing homes reported a COVID-19 outbreak, defined as at least one case. Another 235 homes have resolved their outbreaks.

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