Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his government is consulting legal experts to see if it can force farm workers across the province to be tested for COVID-19.
Mr. Ford, who has resisted the idea of mandatory farm worker testing for weeks, conceded today that he now supports the idea.
His comments come as Windsor-Essex displaced Toronto and Peel as the regions with the highest COVID-19 case rates in Ontario.
The Premier says it may take mandatory testing to contain farm outbreaks in the region.
Windsor-Essex reported 53 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, attributing 43 of those cases to agri-food workers.
Wajid Ahmed, Windsor-Essex’s medical officer of health, said the surge in case numbers in the community may be attributable to loosened public health restrictions that took effect when the region entered Stage 2 of the provincial economic recovery plan weeks ago.
The cases are “stretching” local hospital capacity in Windsor and Leamington, Ont., he added.
“It is definitely stressful [and] concerning and we’ve been dealing with this for quite some time now,” he said. “My message to the community is … unless we all work together, unless we all do our part, it has the potential to get worse, even worse than what we’re seeing right now.”
Hundreds of migrant workers in the region have tested positive for the virus over the past few months and two have died.
On Thursday, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said on-farm testing efforts had recently been “paused” after only 19 of 176 such facilities in the region participated.
David Williams said a new communications package has been created for farms and their workers as the testing restarts.
“There was some sense from our Minister of Agriculture that the communication to the farm owners was a bit confusing,” he said. “So [the government] put together a toolkit … so they can see ahead of time, if you’re going to ask for the mobile team to come into your farm and do testing, you can see what the expectations are.”
Dr. Ahmed said Friday that he will not rule out mandatory testing on farms if he thinks the measure would protect the community.
“So far, the farm owners have come through and followed our recommendations,” he said. “So I didn’t have to force anyone at this point. But in the worst case scenario, if we are in that situation because of the risk, that option will be available for me to use.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Ahmed used a public health order to effectively shut down a Leamington, Ont., farm temporarily after 191 of its workers tested positive for COVID-19.
That prompted criticism from Mr. Ford, who said the move would discourage farmers from participating in local efforts to ramp up testing.
“All of a sudden they shut down the farm and I understand where the chief medical officer is, but do you think that encourages other farmers to co-operate?” Mr. Ford said at the time.
Local political leaders have formally requested the provincial government take charge of the farm outbreak response, a request that has so far gone unanswered.
Ontario reported 195 new cases of COVID-19 provincewide on Friday, as well as three new deaths.
The total number of cases now stands at 38,405, which includes 2,758 deaths and 34,100 resolved cases.
Meanwhile, Hamilton and Niagara are among some regions of Ontario that have moved to Stage 3 reopening.
The easing of measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 gives the green light for gyms, theatres and bars to reopen in regions cleared for the next stage of economic recovery.
Restaurants in those areas are also cleared to resume indoor service, while public gathering limits increased to 50 people inside and 100 people out of doors. In all cases, physical distancing must be maintained.
The regions of Durham, York, Halton, Haldimand-Norfolk and Lambton officially entered Stage 3 on Friday, leaving just Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex operating under Stage 2 rules. Mr. Ford says those regions will have to wait until Wednesday for news on whether they can proceed to Stage 3.
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