Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario over the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, a decision that received support from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and mandated the closure of facilities across the province including child-care centres, bars and restaurants.
The escalation in the government's response to COVID-19 comes as Ontario confirmed eight new cases of the disease, bringing the total number of active cases in the province to 180. The province also said an investigation was ongoing into the death of a 77-year-old man that officials said was "potentially related" to the novel coronavirus.
"We're facing an unprecedented time in our history," Premier Ford said, standing alongside Health Minister Christine Elliott, Finance Minister Rod Phillips, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams at Queen's Park on Tuesday.
"This is a decision that was not made lightly; COVID-19 constitutes a danger of major proportions," the premier said. "We are taking this extraordinary measure because we must offer our full support and every power possible to help our health-care sector fight the spread of COVID-19. The health and wellbeing of every Ontarian must be our number one priority."
Ford, who made the announcement early Tuesday morning, said the order would come into effect immediately. The government confirmed this was the third time a state of emergency had been declared under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act — emergencies were declared during the 2003 power outage that affected more than 50 million in North America and the SARS outbreak during that same year.
The state of emergency related to COVID-19 means the following businesses and facilities were ordered to close: recreational centres, public libraries, private schools, licensed child-care centres, theatres and cinemas, concert venues and bars and restaurants (except those providing takeout or delivery). The government also banned all events of more than 50 people including parades or services inside places of worship.
Ford said the government made the decision to declare an emergency so that it would be in a "position to take any and all actions necessary" as COVID-19 spreads, but stressed that it did not amount to a "provincial shutdown."
The "vast majority of businesses" including grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, public transit, office buildings and construction sites would not be affected by this order, said Ford, who also announced a $300-million relief package that includes both federal and provincial funding.
Elliott said the government was acting on the advice of Williams and acknowledged the order would pose some challenges for Ontarians.
"We know these measures will affect people's every day lives, but they are necessary to ensure that we can slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect our people," she said. "We're working with all partners across the system, from public health to hospitals and community care, to do everything we can to contain this virus and ensure that the system is prepared to respond to any scenario."
When asked on Monday morning about whether bars and restaurants should close, especially in light of Tuesday being St. Patrick's Day, provincial officials said the evidence didn't support that step. There was a marked change by the afternoon, with Williams recommending people cancel all gatherings of over 50 people and that all daycares, bars and restaurants close, unless the latter two were providing takeout and delivery.
The state of emergency on Tuesday was declared through the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. Section 7 of the legislation allows the premier and his cabinet to declare an emergency if it's believed the situation "requires immediate action to prevent, reduce or mitigate a danger of major proportions that could result in serious harm to persons or substantial damage to property." Other criteria include the belief that the resources available to the government, like existing legislation, "cannot be relied upon without the risk of serious delay" or that they might be "insufficiently effective to address the emergency."
The legislation grants the government the power to take several actions including:
- Evacuating individuals and animals from and controlling movement to or from specific areas
- Fixing prices for necessary goods or services and preventing businesses from charging "unconscionable prices in respect of necessary goods, services and resources"
- Setting up emergency shelters and hospitals for the care and safety of people
- Closing any public or private places including businesses, offices, schools, hospitals or other institutions (this is a measure the government has enacted)
- Collecting, transporting, storing, processing and disposing of any type of waste
- Other actions cabinet believes are necessary to "prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of the emergency"
Under the legislation, the state of emergency would stay in effect until March 31 unless cabinet orders an end to it before then. Cabinet could also extend the state of emergency beyond March 31 for up to 14 days. Then, if recommended by the premier, the legislative assembly could "by resolution extend the period of an emergency for additional periods of no more than 28 days."
Speaking outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday morning, the prime minister, who is in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for COVID-19, said the federal government has been co-ordinating with Ontario and will continue to do so. He also offered his support for the Ford government's decision.
"Ontario is taking the right steps to protect people and the health-care system," Trudeau said of Ford's emergency declaration. "Today's announcement is an example of what we're seeing across the country — national co-ordination and local action that makes sense for the circumstances on the ground."
On enacting a country-wide emergency, Trudeau said his team is exploring the Emergencies Act "to see if it is necessary or if there are other ways that will enable us to take the actions needed to protect people."
Meanwhile, opposition parties at Queen's Park also welcomed the announcement, with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath saying she was "relieved and supportive" of the decision to declare an emergency in Ontario.
"These are very unprecedented times, Queen’s Park needs to take unprecedented actions to protect and support Ontarians," she said.
Asked whether the measures announced by Ford go far enough and if the government should take action on pricing, for example, Horwath noted that the legislation provides the government with a "a great deal of leeway."
"I’m hopeful that we will see more of these initiatives being undertaken as we see what happens in the community," she said. "I know that folks are worried about things like prices, things like over-consumption or over-buying of goods...so that other people are not able to get their needs met."
She urged people to "say calm," echoing messages from the premier in recent days. Horwath said while she hopes the government doesn't have to take additional measures, her party would continue to "identify the gaps that we think continue to exist."
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner also said he supports the PC government's decision.
"With only a narrow window to flatten the curve, we must put in place strong social distancing measures to try and limit the spread of infection," he said. "Ontarians are adjusting to a tectonic shift in their lives, and we all must pull together to support each other through these uncertain times."
Provincial officials didn't include malls in the list of facilities that should close on Tuesday morning, with Williams saying that he was still determining if this was necessary.
Horwath called on the government to make decisions quickly and communicate them clearly to the public, but she also called on Ontarians to use their own judgement, adding that she's already made up her mind about malls.
"When the decision hasn’t been made, but you suspect that it’s probably coming, then you should use your own best judgement and just not go to the mall," she said. "I certainly have advised my son not to go to the mall, I’m not planning on going to the mall."
Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor of global health, law and political Science at York University, said he was surprised by the emergency declaration because it was just yesterday that some businesses were asked to close and Canadians told to stay home if they could.
"One might have expected that the province would wait to see whether people complied with that strong request, but I guess the province didn’t want to wait and maybe thought that more people would likely comply if it was legally mandated to do so," he said.
The government now has an "additional burden," he said, in enforcing the measures in a "uniform and an equitable way."
"If the province enforced this rule in a prejudicial way targeting particular communities or people from particular places then that would not be allowed," he said. "They now need to figure out how to enforce this is an appropriate way."
He noted that the fines for breaking any of the orders are "quite significant."
The legislation outlines a fine of up to $100,000 and up to one year in jail for individuals, up to $500,000 and up to one year in jail for an individual who is a director or officer of a corporation and up to $10 million for a corporation.
Hoffman said it seems as though the government's strategy is to try to "emphasize the gravity of the situation and trying to give itself more authorities to do things that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to do."