'Behind closed doors': Your daily Ontario COVID-19 roundup

‘Behind closed doors’: Your daily Ontario COVID-19 roundup

Long-term care commission

Reporters pressed Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton Wednesday on the revelation that the commission looking into the management of the sector during COVID-19 has not decided whether it will hold public hearings, despite government promises that it would.

She stressed on Wednesday that the government is taking a hands-off approach to the commission, whose members are experts and can be trusted.

"These are three very qualified people in their fields, very trusted people in their fields," Fullerton said, noting that they have the power to hold public hearings if they wish. "It is independent from government. We do not influence them. And I've been very clear about that. This is a transparent process run by the commissioners. It is not me, the ministry or my government that is dictating what they do."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called Fullerton's response "very disheartening," pointing out that the government has the power to set the rules around the commission.

"To hear that they are not committed to public hearings, it's just completely unacceptable," she said.

Interviews with people like the deputy minister of health are already taking place "behind closed doors," Horwath said, adding that the commission has already lost its credibility. "The use of the word 'transparency' does not apply to this commission because it's already not transparent."

Horwath accused Premier Doug Ford of hand-picking commission members to "sweep the corpses of these people under the rug." The only conclusion the public can draw from the secrecy is that the government has something to hide, she said.

Green leader Mike Schreiner had a similar message: "The premier should've agreed to a full public inquiry from day one."

Asked if she would tell the public when she's had her interview with the commission, Fullerton said, "I don't see why not."

Testing centre line-ups

Premier Doug Ford didn't announce a date for the announcement about private pharmacies helping out with COVID-19 testing, but said it was coming soon.

"We're just going to ramp up the testing like you've never seen before," he said, adding that the long lineups seen at testing centres were at least a good sign that people are getting tested, and that he saw a lot of young people — who make up most of the new cases — in the lineups.

Ford also lavished praise on the private sector.

"When we've called out for help — and we've called out for help again — it's like the private sector coming over the top of the hill like the cavalry and helping us out," he said, promising "thousands" of new testing centres.

Ford emphasized that the private retailers will be for asymptomatic tests only, to take some of the load off of regular testing centres.

Especially in his hometown of Ottawa, testing centres are at about a third of the capacity they need to be, Liberal MPP John Fraser said.

"The lineups are incredible," he said. "People are out there with their kids for four, five hours."

The government knew a second wave in the fall was a possibility, Horwath said. "So why is it now that they seem to be chasing this, instead of having gotten ahead of it, knowing that it was coming down the pike?"

Gathering limits

In light of rising COVID-19 cases, Ford said he would talk to cabinet after his press conference about lowering the maximum number of people allowed to gather in one place.

He didn't promise specific numbers but said there will be stiff penalties for those who break the rules.

"There's gonna be some severe, severe fines for people who want to ignore the regulations and the guidelines. So it's going to be severe. They're going to be the highest in the country," he said.

Ford didn't say whether the new limits will only affect private gatherings, or places like bars and gyms as well.

Fraser said the government should've planned for increased testing and a second wave well before now.

"When I went to school, a plan was something you did before the event occurred," he said. "This government is scrambling."

Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario's chief coroner and the lead on the province's outbreak response, said he wasn't sure if Ontario was in a second wave, but that it's important to focus on narrowing outbreaks and getting the number of cases down.

New screening tool

The government launched a new screening tool aimed at helping parents, students and staff decide whether to go to school or stay home.

The tool, which consists of a series of symptom and risk questions, is voluntary and does not collect any personal health information, the government said, adding that it cost taxpayers nothing to develop.

"It's everyone's responsibility to screen themselves or their child for symptoms before going to school," Ford said. "If you're sick or someone in your household is sick, even with mild symptoms, please stay home."

There has been some consternation about the call to self-isolate for common symptoms, like having a runny nose.

Wedding photos

Ford insisted "all the protocols were followed" at MPP Stan Cho's wedding, where he was pictured standing close to other people without a mask on.

"Every single person in that room had a mask, they got their temperature taken. If I stretched my legs, I stood up from the table, and I didn't have my mask on, and then sat back down — wandering around that room, everyone had their masks on," he said.

Very few people in the photos were wearing masks.

"By the way, any time I'm with anyone, social gathering, I always make sure we maintain a six-foot distance with anyone," Ford added later.

Jack Hauen

Torstar

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