The premier can finally get his hair cut.
Premier Doug Ford announced today that ahead of the Canada Day long weekend Toronto and Peel region would move to stage two of public health restrictions as of Wednesday.
While most regions of the province entered stage two on June 12, with more added on June 19, Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex were left behind due to high coronavirus numbers. Being left out of stage two has meant that people in the two regions haven't been able to get a haircut from a barber or salon, restaurant patios have remained closed, and some community services such as swimming pools remained unused.
"We're seeing the trends going the right way, we're hitting our markers," the premier said in his afternoon press conference, touting progress.
The change in stage has no effect on the guidelines for social distancing and limiting close contact to "social circles" of 10 or fewer people. Daycares were already allowed to open for people beyond essential workers, although restrictions have been placed on how they can operate, which has meant many have not reopened. If they do, fewer spaces will be available and some providers said the costs that would accompany these limits would be untenable.
The announcement will leave Windsor-Essex as the only region in the province stuck in stage one. The area in Southwestern Ontario has struggled with a recent outbreak among migrant workers.
"Unfortunately right now the threat of the coronavirus in Windsor-Essex is still too great," the premier said, adding that the government is making an effort to respond to the situation there.
By contrast, encouragingly low coronavirus case totals and high testing levels in Toronto and Peel have given health officials and the government confidence that the cities have turned the corner.
Toronto's daily caseload has steadily declined since mid-May. In mid-April there were as many as 301 daily reported cases, but the city saw a decline from that peak before another rise to a May high of 213 daily cases. Since June 5 Toronto has seen fewer than 100 new cases per day.
Testing has also improved across the province. Ontario saw over 21,000 tests in the latest daily data, even though Mondays tend to see lower amounts as fewer people get tested on the weekend. The province has consistently seen testing levels in the high 20,000s in recent days.
The province's capital has been hard-hit by the coronavirus, with over 1,000 deaths and more than 13,000 cases. Seniors have borne the brunt of the impact as long-term care homes have been ravaged; 87 per cent of the city's COVID-19-related deaths have come from individuals over the age of 70. The majority of cases outside of institutional outbreaks have been concentrated in just 10 per cent of Toronto's neighbourhoods. As QP Briefing reported, these communities have disproportionately been lower-income, racialized and feature intergenerational apartment living situations.
In a joint letter, the GTA mayors cautiously welcomed the stage-two reopening. "We trust as we move forward into stage two together and on to future stages that the province will continue to work closely with local Medical Officers of Health and to demonstrate sensitivity to possibly differing regional realities," stated the local leaders, including Toronto Mayor John Tory and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.
But the letter underscored that despite the reopening, municipalities face a financial reckoning due to the pandemic, and they appealed for an urgent and meaningful bailout package in recognition of the circumstances. "The increased demand on municipalities and our services comes while we are still experiencing unprecedented costs responding to COVID-19 and significant revenue losses due to the continuing pandemic."
With almost all of the province in stage two, Health Minister Christine Elliott indicated that it will still take further time to go into stage three, which a committee is currently reviewing. "We won't be ready to do that until we've been able to assess the health effects of people from stage two," she advised. "We haven't done that analysis yet because it hasn't been long enough, but we want to make sure that we can do that level of analysis before we can then move to stage three, where we can more fully open our economy," she added, saying that factors that would determine stage three include the number of positive tests and hospital capacity.
Finance Minister Rod Phillips added some more details about what it would take to get to stage three. "There needs to be at least two to four weeks in between the transition," he explained. The first wave of stage two kicked off on June 12, just 10 days ago. He added that stage three conversations in some communities, like Ottawa, London and Kitchener-Waterloo, have been happening locally.
That's a far cry from what Windsor-Essex is experiencing.
There, migrant workers in Leamington and Kingsville have been especially hard-hit. Three migrant workers are among the 68 people who have died in the region, according to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. There are currently seven outbreaks there, and 31 of the 32 positive cases announced today in the area were agricultural workers.
Despite this, the government has struggled to increase testing in Windsor-Essex. Ford expressed his frustration in his afternoon press conference, and in an extraordinary step for an Ontario premier, he teed off on farmers.
"I'm going to tell it the way it is, farmers just aren't cooperating there and sending out the people to get tested," he charged, saying that the government can't force the workers to get tested and so cooperation is needed. "It's not fair to other people — doing what you're doing to people. It's not fair for the region, the businesses, you know, by not getting the workers tested," he added, further calling out farmers.
Just in case that appeal didn't work, the premier tried to plead. "I'm begging here for your support, for the people of Windsor and Essex. What more do you want to do? It's frustrating, to say the least."
In an attempt to resolve this issue, Green Leader Mike Schreiner said more has to be done to recognize how occupational precarity makes it tougher for migrant workers to stand up for their health and safety needs. "This pandemic has exposed the inequality between how we treat migrant workers and local workers," the Guelph MPP who grew up on a grain farm stated.
"It is not fair that seasonal workers might be afraid to report an illness or might be living and working in unsafe conditions that they cannot speak out about," he added.
Among the recommendations Schreiner made were to increase labour law protections for Ontario migrant workers, create a provincial housing standard for safe living conditions, and to work with the federal government to create a pathway for permanent residency or citizenship.