By Laura Stone, Oliver Moore & Jeff Gray

Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region are moving to shut down businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks, acting more forcefully than the Ontario government in the face of a devastating third wave.

Toronto’s top doctor, medical officer of health Eileen de Villa, announced Tuesday that she would exercise her power to shut businesses – or part of businesses – with COVID outbreaks, hours after Peel Region said it would order sweeping new business closings.

Toronto and Peel said they would close businesses for 10 days when at least five confirmed cases have been identified within two weeks that “could reasonably have been acquired through infection in the workplace.” The new rules will apply in both regions by Friday. Peel region includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton.

“Workplaces that are open provide an opportunity for COVID-19 to spread,” Dr. de Villa said in the statement. “Given that the majority of our cases are now as a result of variants of concern, which transmit faster, this order will support Toronto Public Health’s investigators to help workplaces immediately reduce the risk of spread and manage workplace outbreaks quickly.”

Both Peel and Toronto will require employees to self-isolate during the closures and they will not be allowed to work in other places. However, workplaces such health-care facilities, schools, child care centres and those providing critical services may not be shut entirely, Toronto said.

Lawrence Loh, Medical Officer of Health for Peel, announced similar measures earlier Tuesday. Both Dr. Loh and Dr. de Villa are using their authority under section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to order the closings.

Critics have argued that Ontario has left too many businesses open amid continuing workplace outbreaks and more contagious variants. The changes, Peel said, will be in effect as long as the region is under a shutdown or lockdown provincial order.

“We are seeing the highest rates of transmission in our community than we have seen throughout this entire pandemic. Workplaces that remain open continue to be a driver of cases in Peel, as they have been throughout the course of our emergency response,” Dr. Loh said in a statement to The Globe.

Dr. Loh also said that in the absence of provincially legislated paid sick days, Peel Public Health calls on employers to provide paid leave for all employees impacted by COVID-19 or the new safety measures. Businesses such as health care, first responders, critical infrastructure, emergency child care and education will be exempt.

Later Tuesday, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said the province’s hospitals are “buckling” under the weight of COVID-19 and stronger measures are urgently needed.

The group says those measures include accelerating the vaccination of essential workers and offering them paid sick days, and closing more non-essential workplaces. It says hospitals are at capacity and younger people are getting sick as case counts keep hitting record highs.

Dennis Darby, CEO and President of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, said the group was “deeply concerned” about Peel region’s orders.

“Although we recognize that the situation is critical right now, this unilateral decision could have a catastrophic impact on Ontario’s manufacturing sector,” he said.

In March, Peel Public Health also ordered Amazon Canada to cancel all shifts at its facility in Brampton after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks. Under the new order, Dr. Loh can order closings with far fewer cases.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government says it is now considering some sort paid sick leave for low-income essential workers, a policy that public health experts and the government’s own science advisers have urged it to implement for months to curb the spread of the virus.

In the legislature, the province’s Finance Minister, Labour Minister and House Leader all criticized the federal government for failing to enhance its widely criticized sick-day benefit program in its Monday budget, hinting Ontario was now looking into its own move.

Ontario had previously asked Ottawa to fill gaps in the program, which critics have said offers too little help, at $500 a week, and takes too long for cheques to arrive. Speaking to reporters, Health Minister Christine Elliott confirmed her government was debating a new approach.

“It was clear yesterday with the budget that it was not going to be improved by the federal government,” Ms. Elliott said. “And so we are considering our alternatives now to deal with those gaps.”

The Opposition at Queen’s Park said the move was well past overdue.

“Entire families of essential workers have been in the ICUs, getting sick and losing their lives,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said. “This government has to admit that they were wrong.”

Liberal MPP John Fraser noted that the Progressive Conservative government removed two paid sick days from the province’s labour laws, and repeated his party’s call for Premier Doug Ford to resign.

“The damage is done. There was no need for this to happen. It’s just simply gross negligence,” Mr. Fraser said.

Ontario reported 3,469 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 22 more deaths linked to the virus. Ms. Elliott says there are 1,074 new cases in Toronto, 775 in Peel Region, and 406 in York Region. There were 90,409 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine administered in the province since Monday’s report.

The Ontario government over the weekend was forced to reverse new lockdown measures in the face of public outcry. Just two days after announcing that playgrounds would be shuttered and police would have extraordinary powers to stop people on the street or in their cars, the government backtracked, although other outdoor recreational amenities remain closed.

Originally posted by The Globe and Mail on 04/20/2021.