Ontario’s two biggest coronavirus hot spots are moving to temporarily close businesses with recent outbreaks of the virus, in an effort to rein in surging case counts experts said were fuelled by workplace spread.
The City of Toronto and Peel Region announced within hours of each other Tuesday that they would issue updated orders requiring businesses that have seen five or more linked cases in the past 14 days to shut down for 10 days. During that time, workers would have to self-isolate, they said.
“Workplaces that are open provide an opportunity for coronavirus to spread,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, the medical officer of health for Toronto, in a statement. “Given that the majority of our cases are now as a result of variants of concern, which transmit faster, this order will support Toronto Public Health’s investigators to help workplaces immediately reduce the risk of spread and manage workplace outbreaks quickly.”
Toronto said it will issue its order by Friday, while Peel Region said businesses could be told to close as early as Friday and those affected will be contacted directly before they are publicly identified.
Those deemed essential for the well-being of the community, such as businesses in health care and emergency childcare, will be exempt from full closure in Peel, the region said, while Toronto officials said only that they may be exempt.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, the medical officer of health for Peel Region, urged employers ordered to shut down to provide paid sick leave to their staff, “in the absence of legislated paid sick days.” The move comes a day after the Ontario government rejected efforts to bring paid sick-leave for essential workers and shut down non-essential businesses.
The province has faced increasing pressure from health experts and advocates to implement paid sick days and close non-essential workplaces amid a third wave that threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system. The governing Progressive Conservatives shot down Opposition motions on both issues Monday, saying they were waiting for the federal government to announce an expansion of its sick-day program.
But on Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government appeared to be in the process of changing course. Ford’s government said Tuesday it was considering a paid sick-leave program for essential workers amid warnings from its own science advisers that hospitals were “buckling” under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said inaction by the province has forced Peel’s top doctor to issue orders to protect workers himself. “Dr. [Lawrence] Loh of Peel had to step in because the premier marched us right into this third wave with his eyes wide open and he is now marching us in the wrong direction.”
Ontario’s top doctor, meanwhile, said Monday that the province could look into closing more non-essential businesses, but suggested there isn’t a “clear-cut answer” as to what’s essential.
Provincial data released last week showed Peel Region — which includes Brampton, Mississauga and Caledon — had the highest coronavirus positivity rate at 15 per cent, with Toronto coming in second at 11.3 per cent. The region west of Toronto also had the highest number of weekly new cases per 100,000 residents, the data showed.
One of the public-health experts involved in preparing the province’s coronavirus projections said last fall that the virus is hardest to control in areas such as Brampton, where the proportion of essential service workers is higher and households are larger.