By Sneh Duggal and Jack Hauen
One day after the province entered Stage 1 of reopening the economy, Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn't hesitate to "roll things back" if needed.
"We’re watching the trends like a hawk right now — we’re watching the rate of the spread, we’re watching closely for any sudden surges or flare-ups and...I want to be crystal clear that I’m fully prepared to take every action necessary," said Ford at a Wednesday afternoon press conference at Queen's Park. "If we see things going in the wrong direction, we’ll be fully prepared, we won’t hesitate to roll things back if necessary."
On Wednesday, the province reported 390 new cases of COVID-19 — an increase of 1.7 per cent from the previous report. The two days prior saw increases of 1.9 per cent and 1.3 per cent.
Ford took the opportunity to remind Ontarians that even with the economy starting to reopen, public health guidelines still need to be followed. This includes staying at home and away from others when ill, continuing to practice social distancing and wearing a non-medical mask when this is not possible, working from home when able to and washing hands frequently.
"To stop the spread of this deadly virus, the best line of defence is staying two metres apart, so when in doubt, keep that golden rule in mind, because the virus can only spread as far as we allow it," Ford said.
His comments came as Ontario reported that 7,382 COVID-19 tests were processed on Tuesday, far short of the province's lab capacity for 20,000 tests.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she's concerned about the province's testing levels and that this needs to change, especially with the economy opening up.
"If people are going to stay safe, if workplaces are going to be safe, if employers are going to be able to keep everyone safe, both customers and employees, the testing piece has to be there and it simply is not and that's very very troubling to me," she said.
For his part, the premier voiced his own concerns about testing.
"I recognize that the numbers weren’t there, it kind of shocked me," he said. "But in saying that, we have...a strong plan to ramp up the testing."
This isn't the first time Ford has shared his disappointment in the testing numbers or promised a boost in testing.
"We’re going to ramp up the testing like this province has never seen. Another three, four weeks, we’re going to do a lot of testing, I can stand here and promise you that, I’m going to be all over this testing," he said, stating his desire to ensure health-care workers and those in long-term care are continuously tested.
Health Minister Christine Elliott pointed to the change in testing guidelines that allow for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested — something she said is "really important from a community perspective as we’re opening the economy."
After testing those in long-term care homes, Elliott said the government is moving to test people in retirement homes, group homes and other congregate settings.
"We can’t open things up to Stage 2 until we can fully assess what the effects of Stage 1 are in the community, so testing becomes all the more important and we do have a plan to ramp it up considerably," she said.
Epidemiologists have raised concerns recently about Ontario trying to boost testing while also reopening the economy, saying that if there is a rise in cases, it will be hard to determine which change caused it.
Ford said there's no set date for the start of Stage 2, which would involve allowing even more businesses to reopen. But he also gave no specific numbers when it comes to the possibility of rolling back any Stage 1 measures.
"Right now we don’t have one specific number, again we’re going to keep an eye on it, and if we see numbers start spiking, we’ll roll things back in a heartbeat, I’m just not going to chance it," he said.
Meanwhile, as more businesses open their doors, many are facing additional costs with things like installing plexiglass to separate their employees from customers or providing employees with personal protective equipment. Asked whether the government plans to help those businesses that want to reopen, but don't have the money, Ford didn't offer any additional funding. He said plexiglass is "relatively inexpensive" and suggested that businesses look at cheaper options like transparent plastic sheets and using tape on the ground to make physical distance markings.
Ford clarified that he is "hoping" that summer day camps will be allowed to open by July or August — but it's not definite.
“We’re going to go by the numbers," he said.
The premier said on Tuesday that overnight camps won't open this summer, but day camps might be able to.
The Ontario Camps Association (OCA), which has more than 600 members including accredited camps and individuals, said in a statement on Wednesday that the government's decision was in the "best interests" of Ontarians.
"While this decision is very difficult for everyone who loves Ontario's camps — especially children and their families, the OCA understands and supports this decision," the association said.
When can we see our friends?
“I know that everyone is asking, when can I see our family? When can we see our friends? When can social gatherings begin again?" Ford said.
The short answer is, not yet. Despite nannies and cleaners being allowed into homes, gatherings are still restricted to five people, who should be no less than two metres apart, Ford said.
“When in doubt, keep that golden rule in mind.”
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams suggested that keeping the five-person limit in place until now is because of the numbers as there have been some increases in the number of new daily cases recently. He said officials are still considering the concept of social "bubbles" and exploring different aspects of it.
Commercial rent aid
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that commercial landlords will be able to start applying for the federal-provincial rent relief program on May 25.
The program would provide eligible landlords with forgivable loans, enabling the landlords to then transfer a 75 per cent rent reduction to small business tenants for April, May and June.
The Ontario government said in April that it would contribute $241 million to the program that is expected to provide more than $900 million in aid.
Ford has repeatedly been asked about protecting small business tenants from commercial evictions or the possibility of a rent freeze for small businesses. On Tuesday, he delivered a stern message to landlords: "don't force my hand."
"Work things out, because I’m trying to compromise here. We’re giving you 75 per cent of what you’re asking for," said Ford, adding that he'll wait to see the response from landlords once the program launches.
Photo Credit: Steve Russell/Toronto Star