Ontario government to shutter non-essential businesses, releases list of 'essential workplaces'

Ontario government to shutter non-essential businesses, releases list of ‘essential workplaces’

Premier Doug Ford is ordering the closure of all non-essential workplaces on Tuesday night in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, giving businesses across the province 36 hours to "adapt and prepare."

The first day of the week also brought with it some tough talk from both Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for those not heeding the advice of health officials on social distancing and self-isolation. This came after several social media posts over the weekend showed people gathered at beaches and parks and as Ontario experiences an influx of people returning from abroad. The leaders did not, however, commit to introducing further measures to force individuals to self-isolate or practice social-distancing even though some jurisdictions are.

"This was a very very tough decision, but it is the right decision," said Ford on Monday afternoon at Queen's Park about the upcoming closure of non-essential businesses. This announcement follows the premier's declaration last week of a state of emergency in the province; this saw an order for some places like child-care centres, theatres and libraries to close. "This is not the time for half-measures. This decision was not made lightly and the gravity of this order does not escape me," Ford said.

The order will be effective as of 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday night and will be in place for two weeks, although the premier said he is willing to extend this if necessary.

"We will, and we must, take all steps necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19. The health and safety of every Ontarian must come first, and that’s why we are taking these important steps," said Ford, assuring Ontarians that they would still have access to groceries, medications, power and telecommunications.

On Monday evening the government released a list of "essential workplaces," which included beer, wine and liquor stores, cannabis stores and producers, grocery stores, pharmacies, phone and internet providers, utilities, hotels, transportation services, construction services, laundromats and dry cleaners, media outlets and hardware stores among others.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath welcomed Ford's announcement, saying her party "fully supports the directive to close the doors on non-essential operations."

"Taking unprecedented action to limit interactions is the only way to limit the spread of COVID-19," she said.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), said she communicated her position to the premier over the weekend  and is "absolutely thrilled" with the "tough decision" that the government took.

"Hopefully people understand now the seriousness of the situation and by people, I mean not only those places that will shut down, but actually the families," Grinspun said, adding that it's important people stay home.

This is particularly critical for frontline workers so they are not placed at further risk, she said, adding that it's also a necessary step to try to slow down community spread.

Meanwhile, Ford also stressed that aside from businesses closing, all Ontarians have a role to play in the fight against COVID-19.

"If you can, please stay home. Only leave if necessary," said Ford.

For snowbirds and other Canadians returning from abroad, the premier offered a clear message: "you must self-isolate."

"The health of your friends, your children and your grandparents depend on this," he said.

Ford said he was concerned following a call with chiefs of police across the province who shared stories of people returning from trips and "going right into the stores."

"I can’t stress it enough, it’s unacceptable. If you’re coming from an airport, don’t, I repeat, do not stop at a store, go directly home and self-isolate for 14 days," Ford said. "I’ve heard numerous stories of a friend or a family member or a co-worker that comes back and says, 'we’re not going to listen, we’re just going out.'"

He called the number of COVID-19 cases related to travel "staggering," acknowledging that while some might not have known to self-isolate at the time, it's something all travellers should do.

An employee with a big box retailer who was granted anonymity by QP Briefing due to her fear of reprisal said she has a few colleagues who returned from abroad within the past two weeks, but did not self-isolate for 14 days. Instead, they showed up to work.

The employee said the issue was raised by some staff members with supervisors, but the individuals continued to come into the store.

"I didn’t feel comfortable, because we interact with these people," said the employee, who after a few days decided to take a few weeks of unpaid leave as a precaution.

She said since so many cases are travel-related, curbing the spread requires mandatory self-isolation for those returning to Canada and that having such an order come from the government will have "more impact."

"Isolation is the only remedy," she said, adding that "it's a question of other people's lives."

"Maybe...the reason they’re coming to work (is) because they need money, but not at the cost of other people," she said.

Grinspun noted that the minister and the chief medical officer of health have been "unequivocal" in their messages about self-isolating after travel, but that it's up to people to follow this.

"Together we can do (this), and if it doesn’t happen then the premier will need to push it further even to mandate (it)," she said.

Currently in Ontario, self-isolation is a recommendation, but isn't mandated. The Government of Saskatchewan mandated on March 20 that everyone who has travelled internationally must self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in Canada. The government offered exceptions for health-care workers, truckers or airline crews "only if they are required to work to maintain essential services, provide emergency health care services and maintain supply chain, and are supervised by Infection, Prevention Control Officers and/or Occupational Health and Safety in the workplace."

Asked on Monday why he wasn't ordering Ontarians to stay at home, Ford said he can't monitor 14.5 million people.

"Our resources are spread thin, we want to focus on making sure we flatten this curve and contain the spread," said Ford. "There’s always going to be that small little group that are going to break the rules, we need to hold them accountable, I don’t care if it’s public shaming or whatever, follow the rules."

Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne and spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police said the force has received "tons" of calls from people reporting fellow Ontarians who aren't self-isolating.

"The calls we’re getting is that 'my neighbour...or I saw this person and I know they were out of town and they’re out and about,' and we’re just getting a lot of calls about that," Dionne said.

She said while governments have recommended people self-isolate especially after they return from another country, police can't currently enforce that.

"Let’s say my neighbour came from Mexico and we saw them out, biking, walking, whatever, shopping, it is not an offence, it is not a provincial offence so police can’t arrest them," she said, adding that there has to be an order from the provincial or federal governments in order to do so.

Police can enforce orders that are listed in the provincial government's emergency declaration, so the closure of certain establishments like bars and restaurants (that don't offer takeout or delivery services) or non-essential businesses as of Wednesday, for example.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said on Monday that police forces are "actively engaged" and will play a role in enforcing the emergency orders "if and when it's necessary" for those who "choose to ignore those orders."

But Ford stressed that he doesn't want it to come to that and while there will be consequences for businesses that don't comply, "we can’t be knocking on every single business of this province checking on them."

"A lot of companies haven’t even needed this order, they’ve closed their shop or closed their office," he said, adding that a "vast majority are co-operating" with the orders so far.

Horwath said the province should first ensure its messaging is clear before looking at additional steps such as enforcement.

The NDP leader said she's concerned people still don't have a clear understanding of their own responsibility — saying the government advertising so far has been minimal and there have been some conflicting guidance from the province and local health authorities concerning social distancing, or "physical distancing."

"We need to be really quite aggressive when it comes to getting that message out," she said. "Once we're satisfied that the message is out and that the information is clear, and that everyone should get it, then we look at whether there still continues to be problematic behaviour."

At that point, it would be time to reconsider using the province's emergency powers to make the guidance on self-isolation enforceable, she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was just as stern as Premier Ford in his message during a press conference on Monday morning.

He acknowledged that social distancing and staying at home was "starting to take a toll" on many, but stressed that people "can’t afford to stop now."

"Social distancing, physical distancing is the single best way to keep the people around you safe," Trudeau said, pointing to key steps including maintaining a distance of two meters between yourself and someone else, avoiding groups and staying home "as much as possible."

"If you choose to ignore that advice, if you choose to get together with people or go to crowded places, you’re not just putting yourself at risk, you’re putting others at risk too," he said.

"We’ve all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they’re invincible; well, you’re not. Enough is enough. Go home and stay home," said Trudeau, keeping the door open to enforcing these recommendations. "This is what we all need to be doing and we’re going to make sure this happens whether by educating people more on the risks or by enforcing the rules if that’s needed. Nothing that could help is off the table."

-With files from Jessica Smith Cross

(Editor's note: this story and headline were updated after the provincial government released a list of businesses it considers essential post-publication. The government had initially said it would release the list on Tuesday, but it was posted online on Monday at 8:00 p.m.)

Photo Credit Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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