Ontario can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Daily case counts of COVID-19 are way down from their peak in January. Schools have re-opened. Businesses are re-opening. The catastrophic second wave that tore through the province’s long-term care homes is finally subsiding, thanks not to Premier Doug Ford’s promised but undelivered “iron ring” of protection, but to priority access to COVID-19 vaccines (though they still came too late for nearly 1,900 residents). If Ontario can just keep it together a little bit longer – until the province receives the supply necessary for widespread vaccination – it can make it through to the other side of the pandemic.
The Ontario government knows what it needs to do, and likewise, it knows by now which lockdown and containment efforts have ultimately proven ineffective. Non-essential businesses in Toronto and Peel Region, for example, have been closed or limited to curbside pickup for the past three months, though case counts in those regions didn’t begin to really taper down until a couple of weeks ago. Outbreaks in congregate workplace settings, meanwhile – such as in factories, warehouses and distribution centres – have continued mostly unabated, which has emphasized the need for improved testing and tracing efforts, continuing inspection blitzes and mechanisms to ensure that sick workers stay home, especially amid the emergence of new and more contagious COVID-19 variants.
Ontario expanded its workplace inspection program last month and has vowed to dispatch more rapid tests to high-risk sites. But on the matter of paid sick days – for which labour activists, health care experts, city mayors, opposition members and even some business owners have been calling – the Premier has resisted. The federal government has an emergency program for workers who need to stay home because of COVID-19, Mr. Ford says. That should be enough.
But the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) has clearly not been enough. A study by Peel Public Health found that 25 per cent of people surveyed who had symptoms that could be associated with COVID-19 still went in to work. In December, Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe said outbreaks in long-term care were largely introduced by staff. The uptake of the CRSB has been much lower than anticipated, with just over 392,000 unique applicants as of Feb. 14, though nearly five million people were expected to make use of the program.
Mr. Ford knows the CRSB isn’t working, and he also knows that imploring Ottawa to beef up its sickness benefit won’t rescue him from pressure to act on an issue that is within his jurisdiction anyway. Indeed, one of the most prudent steps Ontario could take as it tries to coast its way to widespread vaccination is to ensure that workers who might be sick are paid to stay home, and surely Mr. Ford recognizes the costs of any abuse of the system would be far less than the costs of shutting down the economy if COVID-19 case numbers again explode. But even while the health and economic evidence might be persuasive, the political impetus – for this Premier, in particular – is not.
It might be hard to recall this, but before the pandemic, Mr. Ford was the businessman’s premier, elected on a promise to cut the small business tax rate and to eliminate “job-killing red tape.” His government installed signs declaring that the province was “Open for Business” and added the slogan to commercial licence plates. Mr. Ford’s pitch was that he was a “business guy” from Etobicoke, Ont., and as such, he would govern for all the business people of Ontario.
But when COVID-19 hit, Mr. Ford took business owners on a teeter-totter of openings and closures, providing little by way of advance notice. He shut down small retailers and independent businesses while allowing big-box stores to maintain in-person shopping, even though there was and is little evidence to justify the double standard. And he resisted calls to allow small businesses to resume modified in-person operations even after retail shutdowns failed to improve transmission rates. Mr. Ford has forfeited so many of his “businessman credentials” already that requiring employers to pay wages to sick workers (even with support from the government, as the NDP has proposed) might be to risk plunging a final stake through that reputation.
Ideally, political considerations and image management would be tangential to more important matters, such as preventing massive outbreaks at industrial bakeries and not risking a third wave as we emerge from the second. But for Mr. Ford – who has plenty of public-health and economic reasons to deliver paid sick days, and only one major political reason to not – it appears that is not the case.
Ontario’s government knows what to do to get the province past the finish line as smoothly as possible. It’s just a matter of whether it decides to do it.
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