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Pedestrians walk passed Deciem in Toronto's Distillery District, Dec. 17, 2018.

Chris Donovan/Globe and Mail

Toronto has started to name publicly some workplaces experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, identifying a beauty company, a food producer and a computer hardware manufacturer.

Policies on naming workplaces with outbreaks vary widely across regional and provincial health units. Alberta Health Services and regional health units in British Columbia publish the names of businesses with continuing workplace outbreaks. Many other health officials, including in Toronto’s neighbouring jurisdictions of York and Peel regions, do so inconsistently or not at all.

Toronto’s new approach, announced on Monday, comes after months of reluctance to single out companies. Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa had argued that the virus is transmitted by people, not their location. In September, however, Toronto’s board of health called for more transparency around outbreaks.

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Dr. de Villa suggested on Monday that the city’s new approach is happening now because, given the provincially mandated lockdown, these businesses were among the few places where people are still interacting.

“It seemed an appropriate thing to do, in order to best manage risk as it exists right now in our community, at this stage in the pandemic,” she told reporters.

“We’ve worked hard on making sure that we’re providing information that is reliable and can help to inform both us, as public-health officials, and the public in terms of, you know, what they can do to best protect themselves and to limit their interaction with areas of public-health risk.”

Very small businesses will not be identified for privacy reasons. At larger companies, an outbreak must affect a sufficient but thus far undefined number of people and involve person-to-person transmission within the workplace for the public to be informed.

Outbreaks at three Toronto business locations were publicly revealed on Monday: DECIEM Inc., which is the official name of cosmetics and skin-care firm the Abnormal Beauty Co.; Sofina Foods Inc., whose products include the brands Mastro and Lilydale; and the circuit-board manufacturer TTM Technologies. TTM was the only company to respond to a request for comment by late Monday.

“Like much of the Toronto area, TTM employees are experiencing heightened levels of positive COVID-19 cases and we are not at liberty to [provide] details of the affected employee population,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.

Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Patricia Kosseim, said identifying companies “may serve an important public-health purpose,” as long as individuals are not named.

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“For example, it could allow those who may have had some contact with the business or workplace to decide if they should self-isolate or undergo testing for COVID-19,” she said.

Hamilton, west of Toronto, has been the only city in the area regularly to name businesses linked to COVID-19 infections. Medical Officer of Health Elizabeth Richardson said making this information available has been vital to keeping people safe, despite concerns it could stigmatize businesses that have outbreaks.

Dr. Richardson said during a news conference on Monday that it was challenging for businesses that were the first to be named. “But as the field has become unfortunately more level as others get named, then there’s not as much of a stigma.”

North of Toronto, York Region identifies some businesses experiencing large outbreaks, including Vaughan-based State Window Corp., with 70 related COVID-19 cases. But it does not disclose all workplace outbreaks.

Peel Region, a manufacturing and distribution hub that includes the municipalities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, has long rejected calls from Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown and labour advocates to identify outbreaks in businesses.

“Current policy has shown to foster employer co-operation in investigations while leaving the opportunity for stricter enforcement where needed,” Lawrence Loh, Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, said in an e-mailed statement. “We would certainly reconsider this policy if it no longer supported our processes and disease-control efforts.”

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Toronto will also release a weekly snapshot of the number of cases by workplace sector, updated each Thursday. The 11 sectors cover retail, including grocery stores and malls; entertainment venues; fitness facilities and events; and other workplaces, including farms and food processing. One category encompasses warehousing, shipping, construction, manufacturing and offices. The numbers are expected to show transmission is heavily represented among employees whose job leaves them no choice but to go physically to work.

“Until we protect essential front-line workers, we won’t beat COVID, that’s what it means to be all in this together,” said councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the city’s board of health.

“Not only is reporting on workplace outbreaks important for transparency, to better inform the public and in turn inform behaviour, it’s critical for workplace safety because it draws attention to unsafe settings and thus holds both employers and governments accountable to make improvements.”

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