Ontario is spending $150 million to expand reliable broadband and cellular service, Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday.
The funding is part of a plan that predates the pandemic but has become even more important as people work and study at home, he said.
“Staying connected over the internet has never been more important to workers, students, families and friends,” he said. “Internet connection is the difference between carrying on with their daily lives, or not. Reliable high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it's an absolutely essential part of our life.”
As many as 620,000 businesses and households, mostly in rural, remote or Northern areas, don’t have access to reliable internet, he said.
Ford also called on the federal government to provide funding for broadband expansion.
The intake period for project submissions will begin this summer, said Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott.
Ontario will also be focusing on schools, aiming to connect all high schools to broadband by September 2020 and elementary schools by September 2021, said Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
However, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner noted that the plan contains no new money and had already been announced.
“The pandemic has accelerated digital trends, and if Ontario continues with the slow pace of broadband expansion, then rural communities will struggle to keep up,” he said.
“The Ford government must dig deeper and develop a broadband strategy for our new reality.”
Ontarians may soon be able to get tested for COVID-19 at one of the chain pharmacies in their neighbourhood, according to the premier.
Ford was asked about whether Ontario would follow the lead of New York, which has partnered with drug store giant CVS to expand testing capacity.
“We're in conversations right now with some of the largest pharmacies,” he replied. “So stay tuned over the next little while; we'll be possibly rolling that out if that comes to fruition. I think it’s a good model.”
Celebrating local food heroes
Ford said Ontario Health is working on a plan to get migrant workers tested for COVID-19, after large outbreaks that have occurred on several farms led to 240 cases among migrant workers, according to a Globe and Mail count.
Ford agreed that Ontario has seen a spike in cases among migrant workers and said 137 labour inspectors have been sent to farms, issuing 34 orders.
Ford also said the province has provided $2 million for farms to acquire personal protective equipment and renovate their bunkhouses to ensure safe living conditions.
"I have confidence in farmers; they're great people," said Ford. "So I'm sure their number one priority is to protect the workers because without protecting their workers, they won't be able to get their crops out. So I know the farmers are good people and they're going to do everything they can."
In the meantime, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs released a report "celebrating local agri-food heroes," who have kept Ontario's food supply going. The sector, which includes meatpacking plants and other processing facilities, has been hard-hit by COVID-19.
Ford has more tough talk for commercial landlords
Ford had more tough talk for landlords who are refusing to sign up for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program, vowing to act on behalf of small businesses, without specifying how.
The program is a "great deal" for landlords, but they're refusing to take it, he said.
"Well, what they're doing is they're testing me. And that's gonna be the wrong thing to do. We'll give it a few more days, and then we'll act," he said. "So all the landlords out there — you want to play hardball, we'll play hardball then because I'm going to protect the little guy. I'm going to protect the little businesses out there that are struggling.
"It's hard enough to survive for small business owners, as it is, and without COVID, now with COVID, and they want to keep pushing us well, stay tuned, you'll get what you asked for. I promise you that."
He had been asked if he'll follow the lead of British Columbia, which has banned landlords from evicting tenants if they would be eligible for the program but did not apply.
Ford said he's been in discussions with the NHL and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland about the possibility of Toronto being a "hub city" for the league when the season starts in August.
One of the issues is the mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country, and Ford said he wants to know if the NHL would consider a form of self-isolation that involves the players "staying in the hotel room, and hopping on the bus, going the arena and going back to the hotel room."
He also noted it is an area of federal jurisdiction.
Ford said he's also been speaking with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about COVID-19 testing. He said the league wants to test players every day, paid for by the NHL and relying on a private lab, so that it wouldn't interfere with the province's testing efforts.