Premier Doug Ford said his cabinet was set to give Windsor-Essex County the green light to move into stage two of reopening on Thursday, although Leamington and Kingsville will remain in stage one.
Windsor-Essex County is the only region out of 34 that has not yet entered stage two, with both Toronto and Peel seeing a further easing of public health restrictions on Wednesday with the reopening of restaurant patios and hair salons.
The southwestern region has struggled with increasing numbers of migrant farm workers testing positive for COVID-19. Three migrant workers have died in the region. On Tuesday the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit reported 32 new cases of COVID-19, 30 of which were among farm workers.
Ford, who has been quick to praise the province's farmers, was visibly frustrated on Monday when he said "farmers just aren't cooperating there and sending out the people to get tested." He has repeatedly said that he can't force people to get tested.
"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," Ford said. "It's frustrating, to say the least."
On Wednesday, he was back to offering praise for the sector, saying he wasn't in favour of "naming farms" — this was in response to a question about why the government wasn't mandating that the names of uncooperative farms or those in outbreak be publicly named.
"I’m there to protect them, not to hurt them," said Ford, adding that all sides are now working together now.
He laid out his government's plan for Windsor-Essex County to try to get outbreaks in the region under control.
This includes continuing to send mobile testing units to farms, with the government noting that 350 asymptomatic workers had been tested on-site since the weekend. The premier also assured migrant workers that they wouldn't lose their jobs if they tested positive and that they would be eligible for Workplace Safety and Insurance Board benefits, and possibly the Canada Emergency Response Benefit if they worked here last year.
But Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner continued to call for workers to be paid if they take sick leave because of COVID-19. The government has brought in legislation that eliminated paid sick days.
"We are doing everything we can to help Windsor-Essex contain this virus and get back on track, so we can allow local businesses to reopen and get more people back to work," Ford said.
Meanwhile, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams is also issuing guidance that would allow asymptomatic workers who test positive for COVID-19 to "continue working as long as they follow the public health measures in their workplace to minimize the risk of transmission to others."
Williams said that after a cluster of asymptomatic workers tested positive, the suggestion is that such groups could work separately from the rest of the workers "because they're mostly on farms, they're out in large acreage." They would need to wear a face mask and the farmer would need to ensure they sleep, eat and work away from the rest of the workers, said Williams.
The workers would be monitored and retested within two days.
"If any develop signs or symptoms, you would have to deal with them as possible cases. If they turned negative, they could resume their duties and go back and work with the workforce," he said.
Asked about his message to residents of Leamington and Kingsville who might consider going to other communities that will soon enter stage two, Ford said he's not in favour of a "police state" and "there’s no way of stopping anyone."
The premier also defended migrant workers, spewing harsh words for those uttering racial slurs towards them.
"We have zero tolerance for any racial slurs...those vegetables you're eating, it’s because of these migrant workers. Those fruits that you're eating, that we can grow in greenhouses, because of the migrant workers," said Ford. "And if you don't appreciate the migrant workers then you go out in the fields and start working your back off when it's 100 degrees out in the middle of summer."
He said people should be thanking migrant workers.
"A lot of people aren't willing to do the work that they are doing," Ford said. "They never came here with COVID-19, they all self-isolated. The people here, somewhere, somehow, gave them COVID-19, then it spread in congregate living. So I appreciate the work they do."
State of emergency
The state of emergency in Ontario has been extended until July 15. The declaration has allowed the government to introduce several orders related to COVID-19 such as limiting movement of staff between care homes and limiting the size of social gatherings.
"As we gradually and safely reopen our economy, our frontline care providers can continue to rely on these emergency orders to better protect our seniors and most vulnerable citizens and provide the flexibility to put resources where they're needed most," said Ford, adding that he hopes this will be the last extension.
Ford joined Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Toronto Raptors Superfan Nav Bhatia in congratulating Ontario's graduating high schools students.
"Congratulations, you made it!" said Ford, using one of his favourite phrases and calling graduating students "absolute champions."
He said that the future will surely hold some bumps in the road, but that his advice for those facing difficult moments is to "keep going and never ever give up."
Hard work and perseverance will always pay off, he said, adding that Ontario students are his "number one selling tool" for the province.
"I always tell everyone we have the brightest and the best students in Ontario bar none," he said.
Ford called on families to share videos of themselves tossing hats into the air on social media with the hashtag #OntarioGradHatToss.
Lecce said this year has been one for the history books, in which students have faced much adversity, but praised students for showing that "nothing can stop you."
Bhatia said it was heartbreaking that students didn't have the chance to go their proms or walk across a stage to get their diplomas. He asked students to think of the past few months as a "speed bump."
"What you learn from today will shape our country for years to come," he said. "You will always be remembered as the class that changed the world.”
Transfers from long-term care to hospitals
Tanya Coons said she's not willing to have her mother, Dorothy Baird, return to River Glen Haven Nursing Home after the home allegedly refused to transfer the 82-year-old to hospital when first asked.
Coons, who spoke via a Zoom call organized by the NDP, said it was early in May when a personal support worker at the home in Sutton informed her that her mother was having difficulty swallowing, was lethargic and "not being herself." Coons said she tried to get hold of a nurse at the home and, with a COVID-19 test for her mother having come back negative, asked them to have a doctor check for a urinary tract infection. After some delays, Coons said she contacted the doctor's office herself with the request. Ultimately when a urine sample showed the presence of bacteria, Baird was put on antibiotics.
But Coons said her mother was still pocketing food. She requested a nurse to transfer Baird to Southlake Regional Health Centre.
"My comment was 'I'd like her transferred out' and she had said to me, 'Well we don’t do that here,'" said Coons. After three or four days she spoke with the home's director of care and insisted Baird be sent to hospital on May 18.
"That ongoing conversation I had in my head of, I should have pushed further, I should have been a lot stronger, I should have been more of an advocate for my mom," said Coons.
Once in hospital Baird was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection and aspiration pneumonia.
Coons said she's cancelled her mother's bed at River Glen Haven and they are now waiting for an available bed at one of eight other homes on a list she's provided to the hospital.
The government appointed Southlake Regional Health Centre to take over the management of River Glen Haven on May 25. Thirty-four residents have died from COVID-19 at the home, which is still experiencing an outbreak.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Coons' story is one of several she's come across of families "bumping up against a brick wall" when trying to get their loved ones transferred to a hospital for care, with some long-term care homes resisting such requests.
"We’ve seen that too many times and I think we all acknowledge that that should never ever happen," she said. "People deserve to know exactly what’s happening in long-term care homes all the time and people deserve to have confidence that the homes where loved ones are residing are keeping them safe."
Horwath repeated her call for an "independent, public judicial inquiry" to examine the issues within the long-term care sector instead of the government's proposed "independent commission."
Asked about Coons' experience during question period, Premier Ford said he understands what's she's going through "and the pain these families have gone through."
"It’s totally unfair. We’re here to fix the problem collectively, not separately," he said.
Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton reiterated as the government has previously done that if a resident of their family wants someone to be transferred to hospital, "that must be the case."
"So, if people determine that they want to be in the long-term-care home because that is their home, that is ethical and moral ground that we must consider the right of that individual and that family," she said. "But there was never a situation where residents would be stopped from being moved to hospital if that’s what they wished."
Premier Ford continued to call on the federal government to provide more funding to help Ontario's municipalities deal with the effects of COVID-19. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered provinces $14 billion for a variety of initiatives including support for municipalities.
The premier's request came up when he was asked about homeless camps in Toronto and after someone was found dead in an encampment under the Gardiner Expressway, as reported by the Toronto Star.
"Especially in the summer, people don't want to go into the shelters. They don't like the shelters, they don't like staying there, they say some people get beat up, that stuff gets stolen," said Ford. "They'd rather put a tent out in a park, but guys, you can't do it in a public park."
"That's an ongoing issue, just don't hang out in the parks, simple. I wish I could tell you where to hang out," said Ford, adding that the province will "give the municipalities a substantial amount of money, right up to our capacity."