'I just want the farmers to work with us': Your daily COVID-19 roundup

‘I just want the farmers to work with us’: Your daily COVID-19 roundup

On Wednesday Premier Doug Ford marked three months since he declared an emergency in Ontario due to COVID-19.

The premier said March 17 marked the "beginning of one of the darkest periods in our province's history," and he reflected on the past few months during a press conference alongside Health Minister Christine Elliott, who noted Wednesday was another day where the province saw the number of new cases falling below 200. Both officials listed steps the province has taken and thanked Ontarians for their efforts in trying to limit the spread of COVID-19.

"As we work to find a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, we must remain ready for any scenario," Ford said, adding that he would continue to ask the federal government for "the necessary long-term and sustained funding commitment that will ensure Ontario has the strong health care system and the strong economic recovery it deserves."

Ford said what he's learned during these months is the "need to work together," especially across party lines. He noted that the federal and municipal governments haven't played politics.

"I just ask other people from other parties, the opposition or not, work with us," he said. "It's easy to sit back and, you know, fire shots, but it's not worth it. People don't want to see that, they want to see us all working together and that's exactly what we've been doing."

Commercial evictions ban

The Ford government introduced legislation to ban commercial evictions on Wednesday afternoon, with a plan to push it through the legislature by the evening.

There have been constant calls from opposition MPPs and businesses for the government to step in to protect commercial tenants struggling to pay the bills from being evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The premier repeatedly said he wanted to wait until the Ontario-Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program rolled out, but after unsatisfactory uptake he announced on June 8 that legislation was coming.

At the time he said the moratorium would apply to those that qualify for the rent assistance program and that it would be retroactive to June 3 and last until Aug. 31.

Government House Leader Paul Calandra said in a statement that after consulting with the Liberal and Green parties and hearing testimony at the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, the government decided to push the date back to May 1.

“We are pleased to have the support of the Liberal caucus and the Leader of the Green Party, who have made important contributions to the development of this legislation,” said Calandra. “While the NDP opted to walk away from negotiations, we are hopeful that after review and consideration, they will support the expedited passage of this legislation.”

The government said it would seek unanimous consent for an "expedited [two]-hour debate on the bill, followed by immediate votes on second and third reading, passing the bill into law this evening."

Liberal MPP John Fraser and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said they wanted the government to move the retroactive date back further.

"The reality with this bill is, it's two months too late," said Fraser, calling the legislation "imperfect."

Schreiner said he wouldn't block a motion to fast-track the bill, saying while he doesn't support all of the legislation, "something is better than nothing." He called for the government to lower the threshold for the rent assistance program of a 70-per-cent loss in revenue to around 20 per cent.

The NDP is expected to grant unanimous consent for expedited passage of the bill, but will vote against the legislation because the party believes it leaves out "the majority of small- and medium-sized businesses vulnerable to eviction, through no fault of their own."

Premier Ford said he has no regrets.

"I was begging trying to try to get the landlords and the tenants to work together," said Ford. "A lot of them didn't want to work with them, so we had to do what we had to do and I don't regret it. [I've got] to protect the little guy."

Hospital report recommends reopening of schools

The Hospital for Sick Children released a report on Wednesday that recommends schools reopen in September and offers guidance on how to do so safely.

The report, developed by a SickKids-led advisory group of medical professionals and scientists, includes recommendations related to screening, hand hygiene, masks and more.

"We have to accept that COVID-19 will stay with us for a long time. We must move on with certain activities in our lives, such as schooling, while keeping in mind that there are a lot of ways to mitigate risk," said Dr. Ronald Cohn, a report author and president and CEO of SickKids. "Not opening schools in September would continue to have a negative impact on the mental, behavioural and developmental health of children."

Asked whether the government would accept the recommendation to reopen schools in the fall, Premier Ford said he would "listen to the experts."

"If they think the green light's good to go, then we're going to follow their lead and we're going to put in really stringent protocols," said Ford, adding that Education Minister Stephen Lecce would roll out a plan "shortly."

Ford said he wants to ensure that "kids are safe," and that as for educators, the government will "sit down with the unions and discuss a strategy to make sure they feel safe, because they're so important to our children, and they're so important to the education system."

When asked what would happen to educators concerned about returning to school because they are immunocompromised, for example, the premier said "their jobs will be protected, just like everyone else's job is protected and we're going to work with them and come up with a solution, through their unions and through the ministry."

Staying home

The premier was asked whether he envisioned a continuation of civil servants working at home post-pandemic since it could reduce transit and traffic congestion.

Ford said he would discuss this with the head of the Ontario Public Service, Steven Davidson.

The premier said while exploring the idea of when people can work from home is "great," there is also a social element of going to work.

"Some people rely on going to work to meet their friends and their fellow team members," he said. "That's something we will discuss with all the different ministries and with the private sector too, I've heard both sides of the story on that."

Stage two reopening

As several regions head to stage two of reopening on Friday, Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex County will remain in stage one until at least June 26.

The government previously said it would provide an update at the beginning of each week on whether or not the regions in stage one could proceed to the next step of reopening by the end of the week.

Elliott said COVID-19 data received each day, including on Sunday, is reviewed by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province's health command table. Officials then use that data to make a decision on a Monday about whether a region can reopen on the Friday "so that businesses in certain areas will be ready to be able to do that."

"We're going to continue to do that, it worked well for the 10 groups that are going to be opening on Friday, and we'll continue to do that with Peel, Toronto and Windsor-Essex as well," she said.

Migrant workers

Ford again resisted the idea of mandating COVID-19 testing for migrant farm workers, saying "you can't force anyone to get tested."

"I just want the farmers to work with us," said Ford, noting the upcoming closure of a testing site close to Windsor. "No one was showing up...I’ll do anything, I’ll send buses, I’ll send mobile units, but if you send mobile units to every single farm it's going to take 80 days."

The premier pleaded with farmers and workers to get tested, saying he understands "the reluctance," but that "there's no reason to be scared."

"But there's a reason why they aren't sending their workers, and the workers aren't showing up. It's just not fair to the rest of the population," he said.

Asked whether the number of farm workers testing positive was the main thing preventing Windsor-Essex County from moving to stage two of reopening, Elliott said it is. But she also said the region has a large number of workers, especially in the health-care sector, who travel daily to the United States for work.

Meanwhile, the NDP and advocates have called on the Ford government to ensure migrant workers have access to paid sick days, personal protective equipment and accommodation other than "cramped bunk houses that have allowed the virus to spread like wildfire."

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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