TORONTO — Both Peel Region and Toronto will now require workplaces with five or more recent coronavirus cases to shut down for 10 days in most instances in a bid to stem spread of the virus in settings largely permitted to operate as normal during the Ford government’s third state of emergency.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh says that beginning on Friday, any business with five or more known COVID-19 cases occurring within a span of 14 days or fewer, where cases “could have reasonably acquired their infection at work,” or no other source of transmission can be identified, will have to shut down.
“The goal of this is really to get ahead of the variants, as we did with schools and automatic dismissals,” Loh told CP24.
“Workplace exposures in Peel Region continue to drive the region’s high case counts of COVID-19. Expedited closure will also allow Peel Public Health to investigate workplace exposures without risk of continued spread,” Peel Public Health said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
Loh said that the order will force employees to isolate at home, preventing them from seeking work elsewhere, but that employers should continue paying employees while they are home.
“We know that our workers have continued to show up at work sick,” Loh said Tuesday.
Later on Tuesday, Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa issued a statement saying Toronto would do the same as Peel.
“Given the high case counts and number of workplace outbreaks in both Toronto and Peel, Toronto Public Health has been working on the development of this order with Region of Peel Public Health,” she said in a statement.
“A similar authority was recently delegated by the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia, where workplaces are being closed for 10 days when employees test positive for COVID-19.”
Toronto’s order will take effect on Friday alongside Peel, with the same 10-day minimum shutdown and threshold of likely workplace transmitted cases needed for a closure.
The Ford government has repeatedly declined to legislate paid sick time during the pandemic, referring instead to the Canadian Sickness Recovery Benefit, largely funded by the federal government, which numerous doctors and social scientists is inadequate.
Dr. Peter Jüni, the director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, told Your Morning on Tuesday it is his view that Ontario won’t get the pandemic under control now without enhancing paid sick leave.
“If the province wants to get this under control and tries to do that without efficient paid sick leave, it won’t work, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
“And the federal paid sick leave is basically not uncomplicated enough, not timely enough, not enough money to make this, and it’s being used throughout Canada as an argument not do something about what is a fact.”
Loh referred to a recent study his unit conducted that found 2,000 documented instances of workers in Peel coming to work while knowingly sick and later testing positive for coronavirus.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said his government would continue pressuring the federal government to improve its sick leave program, rather than legislate paid time off or develop any program of their own.
“We’ve been advocating to the federal government to improve the program. We saw the budget yesterday, more than $100 billion in new spending, and ours and other province’s calls to improve the sick leave program, that wasn’t in the budget,” McNaughton said.
Without specifying, McNaughton said the province would assist Peel in helping any workers forced to isolate at home due to the new measure.
“We’ll be working with local public health to make sure these workers are looked after,” he said.
Loh has in recent months repeatedly taken unilateral action to dampen the surge in COVID-19 cases in Peel Region, even when the Ontario government would not act.
In March, he ordered a massive Amazon fulfillment centre in Brampton be shut down for two weeks due to hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 infections inside, something the retail giant threatened to challenge in the courts.
Earlier this month, Loh shut down all public schools in the region due to coronavirus transmission, even as the province’s education minister insisted they were safe to remain open.
The latest order will likely impact numerous businesses, as there were 30 known active outbreaks of COVID-19 listed on Peel Public Health’s website on Tuesday morning.
Peel Public Health says the new order will not impact schools, hospitals, childcare facilities and other examples of “critical infrastructure,” such as electricity generation and distribution.
But Loh said the list of exemptions will be extremely limited, and will likely not include manufacturing, distribution or warehousing, sectors with a large presence in Peel.
The order will also allow health officials to name all businesses ordered to shut down once they have been informed.
Speaking after the decision was made public on Tuesday, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said he supported the move.
“We have had over 400 workplace outbreaks in Peel Region, we currently have 90 investigations for workplace outbreaks in Peel Region that are currently being investigated,” he told CP24 after receiving the first dose of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
“We have to get numbers under control, I think this was the right move, it’s nimble and it’s smart.”
For her part, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said the new rules were painful but necessary, adding that the province should narrow its definition of what is considered an essential business.
“Many of us have asked that the list of essential workplaces be reviewed and additional workplaces be added,” she said.
The provincial state of emergency and stay-at-home order largely avoided adding new requirements for industrial and commercial workplaces, something multiple mayors and doctors have questioned.
McNaughton said last week that inspectors had visited workplaces for COVID-19 concerns nearly 90,000 times in the past year and found unsafe working conditions less than 50 times.
It is unclear whether the provincial labour guidelines regarding COVID-19 take into account air quality and ventilation as a risk factor requiring mitigation.
Public Health Ontario has urged all workplaces to consider air quality and ventilation as evidence continues to emerge that coronavirus can remain infectious while circulating in the air.
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