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Ontario’s Lockdown Ignores Workplaces Hard Hit by COVID Outbreaks

Posted: December 24, 2020

(December 23, 2020)

By: Anya Zoledziowski, Vice World News

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s attempts to temper the concerning rise in COVID-19 infections don’t go far enough, experts say, because he hasn’t mandated paid sick leave for workers, and essential workplaces seeing outbreaks—including warehouses and food processing plants—will continue to operate without further restrictions.

Ford announced a province-wide shutdown on Monday, as cases in the province continue to rise at an alarming rate, and intensive care admissions reach new highs. But the new rules, which don’t kick in until Boxing Day, have been criticized for being late and not stringent enough. 

Notably, Ford didn’t introduce measures that would combat COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces like factories, construction sites, and food-processing plants. Virus transmission at these work sites account for about one-quarter of all cases in the province, the Globe and Mail reports, and far outpaces that of the general population. According to the Ontario Health Coalition, cases in the manufacturing sector surged by almost 77 percent in the final two weeks of November, while jumping 22 percent in the general population.

Even though more than 7,600 workers have fallen ill, only one employer has been fined for failing to uphold COVID-19 safety standards, according to the Toronto Star. 

Ford has failed to implement paid sick leave in the province, despite widespread calls from the health community to do so, dating back to the beginning of the pandemic. Experts say it’s a simple and effective mechanism—“an absolute necessity,” according to one doctor—that would keep workers safe by allowing them to stay home for up to 14 days when ill without sacrificing their incomes.

Right now, Ontario does not offer any paid sick leave.

“I’m saddened we haven’t made it easy for these employees,” said Dr. Alexander Caudarella, a family medicine physician in Toronto. “Stop blaming individuals (for spreading COVID-19) and make it easier and more feasible for them to implement what public health is asking.”

Ontario is grappling with a steep increase in infections, with an average of 2,288 new cases per day over the seven days leading up to December 22, CBC News reports. The province had 19,300 active COVID-19 cases and 4,188 deaths as of Wednesday morning.

Ford has been criticized for failing to mitigate the second wave of the virus and worsening several bad situations over the past nine months: despite promising an “iron ring” to protect long-term care residents, nearly 160 homes are currently dealing with outbreaks and more than 630 residents have died since September; the province lagged in expanding testing capacity, even though it has access to billions in federal funds; and students were sent back to school without clear and equitable plans to limit class sizes and make childcare attainable.

Now, there are 285 patients in Ontario’s intensive care units, putting people with non COVID-19-related health issues at risk of being denied care. Modelling data released Monday showed that number could balloon to 1,500 by mid-January.

Starting December 26, many services, including hairdressers and nail salons, must close. Restaurants, bars, and retail stores will be limited to curbside pickup or delivery and in-person school classes for K-12 students will be delayed in the new year.

Caudarella said while it’s important to save businesses, they shouldn’t be prioritized over workers.

Caudarella said he has many patients who have been forced to choose between going to work while feeling unwell or losing income. “They say, ‘I have bills to pay, I’m already stretched thin, I have no choice,’” Caudarella said.

Ford’s office did not respond to VICE World News when asked why he has repeatedly said he would “spare no expense” to protect Ontarians from the virus, but won’t implement paid sick leave. We will update the story if we hear back.

On Monday, and again on Tuesday, Ford placed blame on the federal government for refusing to support a pilot project that would introduce COVID-19 testing at the airport for travellers arriving in Toronto from overseas.

“Without further action by the federal government at our borders we remain at extreme risk,” Ford said on Tuesday. “That’s why our government has been calling on the feds for months for testing at airports, for further tightening of the borders.”

Canada has banned most foreign nationals from entering the country, closed the Canada-U.S. border, and recently blocked U.K. flights from flying in as a way to avoid a new strain of COVID-19. People who enter Canada from abroad need to quarantine for two weeks.

Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she was “surprised” by Ford’s comments. “We have been working with his government on his request to conduct a testing pilot project at Pearson International Airport for weeks,” Hajdu said, adding that only about 1.3 percent of COVID-19 infections across Ontario originated from international travel.

Hajdu said the federal government is still in talks with Ford’s team about implementing airport testing but is concerned about the request for a shortened quarantine period. Airport testing could allow people to finish their quarantine after receiving a negative test result, which is what Alberta’s pilot program offers.

“The shortened quarantine period is concerning to us, given the current increase in cases in (Ontario) that is placing significant pressure on public health resources,” Hajdu said.

According to Caudarella, the government needs to combat virus spread in several sectors, including travel. But that doesn’t negate the need to tackle COVID-19 hotspots in work environments.

“It’s normal for politicians to pin things on other jurisdictions, but the reality is we’re not doing a good enough job with workplace safety,” Caudarella said.

Canada-wide, there have been a total of 521,509 COVID-19 cases and 14,425 deaths as of Wednesday morning.

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