Sweeping new measures to shutter businesses facing workplace outbreaks will come into effect Friday, as Toronto and Peel Region seek to contain a crushing third wave of COVID-19.
The two regions, going further than the Ontario government to crack down on workplaces, issued orders on Tuesday directing all businesses with five or more cases of the virus over the past two weeks to temporarily close. The directive requires that the businesses close for 10 days while all employees self-isolate.
The new directive, called a Section 22 order, which falls under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, allows the public health units to close workplaces while investigations into cases and sources of transmission are underway. There are some exemptions for businesses in health care, first responders, education and more.
The announcements preceded a flurry of developments on Tuesday, which first saw strong new recommendations from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, followed by tentative acknowledgment from Ontario’s labour ministry that greater support for essential workers is needed.
The measures mark the strongest crackdown on several major sectors to date. Factories, warehousing and fulfilment centres — all vital to the country’s supply chain — could face closures they haven’t yet encountered during the pandemic should outbreaks persist. The regions said they will offer exemptions for “critical infrastructure,” though they have not yet specified what that includes and whether it covers sectors such as food processing or manufacturing.
The move has prompted an outcry from industry groups, though local health units have defended it as a necessary measure to protect the health of essential workers.
Isaac Bogoch, an epidemiologist and member of Ontario’s vaccination task force, says the regions’ new orders are critical to limiting the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
“Any steps to create safer work environments are the right steps. And, quite frankly, I don’t care what level of government it’s coming from. If we’re taking steps to prevent workplace outbreaks and protect essential workers, we’re doing the right thing,” Bogoch said.
Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, called it a “brilliant move” and one that “should have been done ages ago.”
“It’s like a mutiny,” he said. “(Peel and Toronto’s) public health units aren’t toeing the line. They’re shifting the onus to the employer to make their employees safe.”
Ontario’s science advisory table appears to be taking the regions’ side, too. Not long after Tuesday’s flurry of announcements, the table issued a press release saying that only the “truly” essential workplaces should remain open, and that paid sick leave for essential workers is critical to curbing the virus’s spread.
Similar directives were recently announced by the provincial health officer in British Columbia, where workplaces are being closed for 10 days when employees test positive for COVID-19.
There are some exceptions to the new rules. In Peel, exemptions will be made for health care, first responders, critical infrastructure, emergency child care, education and other businesses related to these sectors. The region says the complete list of exemptions is still being developed and will be updated in the coming days.
Many of the same exemptions exist in Toronto, including workplaces “providing critical services,” though the city did not specify what those services might be.
Mayors Bonnie Crombie of Mississauga and Patrick Brown of Brampton rallied behind Tuesday’s order, saying the move is critical to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
Some industry leaders in the area, meanwhile, criticized the move, warning of the damage that mass closures might do to the economy.
Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said the decision could have a “catastrophic” impact on Ontario’s manufacturing sector.
The Canadian manufacturing sector is “interconnected,” he said. “By taking these actions without a broader co-ordinated approach, the Region of Peel is putting the integrity of our supply chain at risk.”
Peel Region, home to the country’s largest warehouses and factories, has reported more than 400 workplace outbreaks since the pandemic began. Brampton’s Amazon warehouse was shuttered in March after more than 600 workers tested positive for the virus. In recent weeks, the city’s test positivity rate has more than doubled, prompting calls for tighter restrictions and vaccines for essential workers.
“After the closure, they have been more careful,” said an Amazon warehouse worker whom the Star agreed not to name. “They’ve reduced numbers since the last outbreaks; before there were 60 people (in my group) and now there are only 30.”
In January, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour introduced enforcement measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces, dedicating hundreds of inspectors to crack down on businesses that weren’t following safety protocols.
But despite the new measures, workplace-related illnesses and deaths due to COVID-19 have continued to tick upwards in recent months.
As of Sunday, Toronto Public Health was reporting 59 active outbreaks in community and workplace settings (which include institutions such as places of worship, but not health care, school or child-care centres). Among the workplaces with the biggest outbreaks in Toronto are food manufacturing company Mondelez Canada, an Amazon fulfilment centre and a sports apparel company.
Peel Region, which does not publish the names of businesses with workplace outbreaks, said it will begin publishing the names of the businesses that are required to close when the order goes into effect.
The province does not require employers to provide paid sick leave for essential workers and critics have pointed to significant flaws in the federal government’s sickness benefit that can hamper workers’ ability to be paid on time.
Peel Region is “strongly encouraging” employers ordered to close to provide paid leave for employees. But the region can’t enforce it.
The province needs to step in, said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre. “There’s nothing these regions can actually do to get sick leave for employees, so the province needs to do the right thing,” she said.
Pressed on the matter by reporters Tuesday afternoon, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the province is contemplating legislation on sick leave, though he didn’t offer specifics. McNaughton said Ottawa’s failure to improve the federal sickness benefit may have created an opening for the province to step in.
“We saw what wasn’t in that budget and we’ll have their backs,” he said. “Clearly there are gaps in the system.”
The province did not address the local health units’ new measures directly when reached for comment by the Star. Instead, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour pointed to the province’s efforts to crack down on workplace outbreaks, pointing to recent campaigns that targeted hot spot regions and sectors that include big-box stores, factories and warehouses.
“Our government will always be there for our workers,” a ministry spokesperson told the Star. “When workers are sick or worried that they may have COVID-19, they need to know that they have immediate access to paid sick days. That’s why we have advocated for greater flexibility in the federal program to maximize it and get money into the pockets of workers sooner.”
Toronto Public Health, which announced its order shortly after Peel, said it co-ordinated the order with Peel Region in advance.
The region’s top doctor, Lawrence Loh, reportedly spoke with Ontario’s chief medical officer, David Williams, on Monday night to advise him of the region’s decision. “Williams expressed an understanding for Peel’s unique circumstances and challenges, and stated he would be keen to review the impacts of the policy,” a spokesperson for the region told the Star.
With files from Maria Sarrouh
Jacob Lorinc is a Toronto-based reporter covering business for the Star. Reach him via email: email@example.com