The Ontario government says it is considering a paid-sick-day policy for essential workers, an idea it has rejected for months, while Toronto and Peel Region issued orders that would shut down workplaces after COVID-19 outbreaks.
Health experts in the province are adamant that these measures could slow the spread of the pandemic in crowded warehouses and factories. Toronto and Peel say their new shutdown orders are needed as more-contagious variants have exacerbated the pandemic’s third wave.
The change in approach on sick days, the latest in a series for the government of Premier Doug Ford, transpired the same day the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table issued a rebuke of Ontario’s recently announced pandemic measures. The group called for shutting non-essential workplaces and providing emergency sick pay for people who cannot work from home.
Mr. Ford has previously accused those demanding sick pay of “playing politics.” But Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that because the federal government had failed to enhance its sick-leave program in its Monday budget, the province was now “considering our alternatives.” Critics have said the federal program does not offer enough compensation at $500 a week and is subject to delays.
Neither Ms. Elliott nor Labour Minister Monte McNaughton would offer any firm commitments or details on what the provincial government is contemplating.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that with so many essential workers in intensive care, the government needs to admit it was wrong. Liberal MPP John Fraser accused Mr. Ford of “gross negligence” and repeated calls for him to step down.
Late Tuesday night, Mr. Ford’s office said the Premier had tested negative for COVID-19 but was isolating after coming into contact with a staffer on Monday who has subsequently tested positive. Other staffers are also self-isolating.
Mr. Ford, who has not spoken publicly since Friday, has faced a backlash since announcing a series of new COVID-19 measures last week that baffled experts. They warned that the government was doing too little to stop the virus from growing exponentially and overwhelming hospital intensive-care units.
While public-health experts called for more measures to stop rampant workplace transmission of the virus, Mr. Ford instead announced new pandemic powers for police, which forces across the province quickly said they would not use.
He also announced a ban on outdoor activities that included the closing of playgrounds, which critics said runs counter to scientific advice. After an outcry, the government watered down the police powers and reopened slides and climbers – but left other measures in place. B.C. also announced new police powers recently to discourage recreational travel but said there would not be random spot checks.
Some members of the COVID-19 Science Table have said they considered quitting after the government’s announcement last week, which one called “mind-boggling.” On Tuesday, the table issued a document, titled “Fighting COVID-19 in Ontario: The Way Forward.”
It says the pandemic is “out of control” and that the province’s hospitals are “buckling” – and calls for stronger measures. In addition to offering sick pay, the government should strictly define essential workplaces, target vaccinations in hard-hit areas and limit mobility between different regions, the table says.
But it also says playgrounds should be open, and safe outdoor activities – with masks, two metres of physical distancing and hand-washing – should be encouraged.
Meanwhile, local officials appeared to be charging ahead in the absence of further action from Mr. Ford. Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa announced Tuesday that she would exercise her powers to shut businesses – or parts of businesses – with COVID-19 outbreaks, hours after neighbouring Peel Region said it would order sweeping new business closings.
Ottawa Public Health said it was not ordering similar workplace closings to Toronto and Peel. But a motion passed by the city’s board of health on Monday called on Mr. Ford to “urgently” review businesses that are open and only allow those that provide groceries, medicine and other essentials for health and safety to operate.
Ottawa Police also announced on Tuesday night that officers will no longer be following a new provincial order – which came into effect just a day earlier – to set up 24-hour checkpoints at land boundaries with Quebec after complaints from the city’s mayor and chief of police. Instead, police said they would deploy officers at those boundaries on a “rotating schedule” only.
Toronto and Peel said they would close businesses for 10 days when at least five confirmed cases have been identified within two weeks that “could reasonably have been acquired through infection in the workplace.” The new rules will apply in both regions by Friday. Peel Region includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton.
Both Peel and Toronto will require employees to self-isolate during the closings and forbid them from working elsewhere. However, workplaces such as health care facilities, schools, child-care centres and those providing critical services may not be shut entirely, Toronto said.
Peel Medical Officer of Health Lawrence Loh, who has also called for provincially mandated paid sick days, said his agency was asking employers to provide paid leave for all employees affected by COVID-19 or the new safety measures. Health care, first responders, critical infrastructure, emergency child care and education will be exempt.
Spokespeople for the City of Toronto did not respond to an inquiry about which businesses currently met the threshold for the new closing order. However, according to data posted on the city’s website, 30 workplaces are currently experiencing an outbreak of at least five COVID-19 cases.
They include Metro, No Frills and Sobeys grocery stores, an Amazon warehouse and a Maple Leaf Foods location. Mondelez Canada, which manufactures for brands such as Cadbury, Oreo and Maynards, is currently experiencing two outbreaks.
With a report from Danielle Webb
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