Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says he’s ordered the people who run the city’s nursing homes to find a way to let family members visit residents through windows again.
The four municipal homes’ administrators told families to stop coming to their grounds in letters sent out this week, saying there had been incidents of outdoor visitors not observing distancing rules meant to protect residents from COVID-19.
The instruction prompted a furor from families who haven’t been allowed in to visit their relatives in weeks, as well as from city councillors.
It also prompted an impassioned response from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose family has been visiting his own mother-in-law, who has tested positive for COVID-19, in this way.
“That’s just wrong,” he told a news conference Thursday when asked about Ottawa’s move.
“They’ve got to think these things through. Go visit your loved ones, as far as I’m concerned. This is critical. And hopefully it won’t be the last time you see them. I’d go to the window.”
In a memo to city council after Mr. Watson’s order Thursday, the city’s general manager of social services said imposing the restriction was difficult. Donna Gray wrote that she knows residents in long-term care homes depend on contact with loved ones for both physical and emotional well-being.
But, she wrote, “on a number of occasions visitors on the premises have not respected the physical distancing requirements and have been in direct contact with staff and residents putting residents and staff at risk of exposure” to COVID-19.
The city’s long-term care homes didn’t consult with Ottawa Public Health before instituting the new rules. Dean Lett, the municipal director of long-term care, said they were based on physical distancing advice.
Staff have been flagging concerns about families trying to get around the safety measures to see their loved ones since the restrictions were first put in place, Mr. Lett said.
“Families still try to get into the building,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Staff have also noticed visitors kissing and touching their relatives through the screens of open windows, and waiting in outdoor common areas on the property to see them.
Mr. Lett said families have also tried to flag down staff for updates on their way in and out of the buildings.
About 700 people live in Ottawa’s four city-run long-term care centres. Four staff in them have tested positive for COVID-19, but no residents have yet, and the policy was intended to try to keep it that way, Mr. Lett said.
“I don’t have to tell you that if that virus gets into one of our homes, it’s deadly,” he said.
While concerns about visitors have been percolating for weeks, warmer weather brought the city to a breaking point as more residents spend time outside and more families showed up on the grounds, he said.
The sudden lack of physical contact with their families has been tough on the residents, some of whom don’t understand why they can’t be together.
“I’m very sorry for the impact that it has on them and on their loved ones,” Mr. Lett said.
The mayor said he wants a new plan in place by May 7. Ms. Gray’s memo says they’ll work with the local health unit on a way “for families and residents to connect in a supervised and scheduled environment to respect physical distancing for the safety and health of residents and staff.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.