'Every option is on the table': A roundup of COVID-19 news in Ontario

‘Every option is on the table’: A roundup of COVID-19 news in Ontario

It's an important week in Ontario's fight against COVID-19, according to multiple top health officials who said they hope to soon see the impact of physical distancing reflected in the number of new cases reported each day.

But on Monday, the province announced 351 new positive tests for COVID-19, a record high, bringing the total number of cases to 1,706. The new cases come as the province continues to speed up the number of tests it can process in a day and has whittled down the backlog of tests from four days' worth to just one.

Meanwhile, officials have begun releasing more information about the Ontario's positive cases. A daily epidemiological report shows that of all cases, "26.3% had travelled in the 14 days prior to becoming ill, 9.6% had close contact with a confirmed case, 16.2% had neither and 47.9% have exposure information pending."

Ontario's cases are nearly split between men and women, and are concentrated in the areas of the province with denser populations — Ottawa and the Toronto area.

Nearly 10 per cent of the people who have tested positive were hospitalized.

So far, 33 Ontarians have died.

Direct payments for families

The provincial government has yet to say when families will start to receive promised one-time payments for children to help offset costs associated to school and child-care centre closures, but said last week more details on how families can apply and how the payments will be issued will be "released shortly."

The Ministry of Education said it was working with other government partners to provide families these one-time payments that are meant to help with purchasing educational resources like workbooks, apps, movies "and other tools to encourage children to continue learning as families follow public health advice to stay home and in some cases, to self-isolate."

The government will give families $200 per child for children 12 and under and $250 for those with special needs up to the age of 21. This would include those who aren't yet enrolled in school and students in private schools. The government has estimated these payouts would cost the province around $340 million.

The ministry said it is has been exploring options for an online application portal.

"We are committed to ensuring it is a simple process for parents," the ministry said. "It is anticipated that the process will be similar to the Support for Parents program where possible."

The Support for Parents website was launched to allow families to apply for funding if they were affected by school or child-care closures because of walkouts from teachers and education workers whose unions were negotiating new contracts with the province. The website asked for the child's name and school board or child-care centre, name and address of the parent or guardian, whether the child was access special education supports and the preferred payment method (direct deposit or cheque).

NDP calls for rent subsidies, ban on evictions

The NDP is calling on the Progressive Conservative government to help Ontarians and businesses with rent payments amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The party is also asking for more eviction protections for renters.

The measures the party is proposing include giving households facing lost income or unemployment because of COVID-19 an 80-per-cent rent subsidy, or up to $2,500 a month, for up to four months.

“For many people in our province, the rent is due this week and they have no way to pay it,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in a statement on Monday. “This public health crisis is also an economic crisis, and renters who usually don’t have much wiggle room at the end of the month are vulnerable. The province needs to have the backs of folks who have lost their jobs or lost income as a result of the pandemic.”

She said this measure would help prevent those who need the rent supports from experiencing "crushing debt" from unpaid rent on the other side of the pandemic. Horwath also said the government should make these payments directly to renters and that small- and medium-sized businesses should also have access to such funds.

Horwath also called for a rent freeze for six months and a "legal ban on evictions, lockouts and disconnections — including business tenants — for four months, and a legal ban on threatening to evict or disconnect a tenant’s utilities."

The province previously announced that it had halted new eviction orders. Sheriff's offices have also been asked to postpone any scheduled enforcement of eviction orders. A government website states that "landlords can still give eviction notices, however, landlords are encouraged to work with tenants to establish fair arrangements to keep tenants in their homes, including deferring rent or other payment arrangements."

Premier Doug Ford has said a few times during press conferences that if renters need to choose between putting food on their tables or paying rent, they should choose the former. But he also said if someone can pay their rent, they should.

Julie O'Driscoll, a spokesperson for Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, reiterated Ford's message in a statement: "Our government has been clear from day one — we will ensure renters can stay in their homes during this challenging time."

"That’s why we acted quickly to prevent evictions. Tenants who can pay their rent must do so, to the best of their abilities," O'Driscoll said. "But we want to be very clear — tenants cannot be forced to leave your home if you cannot pay your rent on April 1st."

She called on landlords to be "as flexible as possible...at a time when many people are struggling."

O'Driscoll also noted that the province had committed to investing $200 million to help vulnerable people and that $52 million of this would go towards those unable to access federal assistance.

"This will help cover basic needs like rent, food, medicine, transportation and other services," she said.

Premier threatens stricter measures

If Ontarians' social distancing practices don't improve, the province will have to take harsher measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Ford said Monday.

It was "shocking" to see so many people out and about on Sunday, the premier said, calling the streets in some areas "packed" during the gorgeous weather.

"And that's unacceptable. We need every person in this province to take a hard look at their habits. Because as I've always said, every option is on the table," he said.

“It’s easy to turn on the TV and think what’s happening in Europe can’t happen here. But it can happen anywhere."

Infectious disease specialists generally agree that going outside for a walk is fine, but that people should avoid crowded places like parks or beaches.

The premier was asked what the tipping point would be for introducing stricter physical distancing requirements. As he often does when it comes to health-related measures, Ford said he would rely on the advice of Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams.

"I think we've shown as soon as I, and our team, gets the advice of the chief medical officer of health and our command table, we act immediately," Ford said.

Ford was asked specifically at what point he would direct police to disperse groups of people, or set up a snitch line to report people not following physical distancing guidelines.

"We don't have enough police in this province to monitor 14 and a half million people," he said, though he reiterated again that no measure is off the table.

"But we really need the help of everyone," he said. "We need people to stay at home."

He stressed that the province has orders for "millions and millions" of pieces of personal protective equipment for medical workers, like gloves and masks, and that Ontario has enough "to keep us going over the next few weeks."

"But if there's a surge, it'll put a strain on them," he said.

Hospitals have already reported rationing equipment recently to avoid critical shortages.

Made-in-Ontario tests

Ford was asked whether the government has been in touch with Abbott Laboratories, a company that produces a COVID-19 test that can reportedly give results in five minutes, and which has offices in Ontario.

Elliott confirmed the province has reached out to Abbott, as well as other test suppliers, "trying to get supplies in as quickly as possible." She and Ford have both personally made appeals to companies, she said.

The province currently has an order in with Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience, which also produces tests that can give results in "minutes," Ford said.

"We need those kits. We need the kits that we can find out within minutes rather than days," he said.

Negotiations with doctors and nurses

The Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) is one of many labour groups currently challenging the Ford government's 1-per-cent cap on wage increases for the next three years.

The premier was asked if he would consider doing away with that cap for health-care workers in light of their work during the crisis.

"Well that's a conversation we have to have after this. I really don't want to sit here and start negotiating," Ford said.

He reiterated that he holds health-care workers in high esteem, and that he would like to "give them the bank," but can't due to fiscal pressures.

"But there's where you have to go with your heart, and then the reality," he said.

He thanked health-care workers again for "working around the clock."

Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked about negotiations with the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), and whether extra compensation for doctors was being considered in light of the pandemic.

"As the premier just indicated, that's something that we'll deal with once we're past the issue of COVID-19," she said, adding that the ministry is currently "working very well together" with the OMA and ONA.

QP Briefing Staff

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