TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford issued an emotional apology on Thursday for introducing COVID-19 restrictions that sparked furious backlash as he confirmed his government would bring in a paid sick-leave program for workers after months of refusing to do so.
Ford said he was sorry for increasing police enforcement powers and closing playgrounds last Friday – measures that were rolled back amid an onslaught of criticism – and said his government got it wrong.
"I will always try to do what's right," Ford said, choking back tears. "If we get something wrong, we'll fix it."
The premier acknowledged his government's recent moves had angered many but maintained he still had the authority to lead the province.
The government had announced the restrictions amid soaring COVID-19 cases and an alarming rise in people in hospital and intensive care. Critics were especially incensed at the government handing police the power to stop people at random to ask why they were out during the province's stay-at-home order.
Ford said the measures had been brought in too fast in response to dire COVID-19 projections.
"We moved too quick; if I make a mistake, I correct it immediately," Ford said. "I'm sorry and I apologize to each and everyone of you."
The premier also confirmed that his government was working on a sick-leave program to support workers, although he did not provide a timeline or any further specifics.
Critics slammed Ford for failing to make substantial commitments to immediately implement sick leave and noted he also didn't move to follow other recommendations from experts like closing all non-essential workplaces.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford's inaction earlier in the pandemic set people up for the devastating third wave and he failed to make firm commitments Thursday to improve the situation.
"How much longer are Ontarians going to have to wait for their premier to do the right thing, base his decisions on public health and science, and save lives and stop the spread of this virus," Horwarth said.
The union representing public employees also criticized the sick leave announcement as lacking action, saying it left workers hanging.
"It's time for far more than assurance that he'll work on something," Fred Hahn, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario said in a statement.
Public health experts, opposition politicians, labour groups and local officials have been calling for sick-leave support for much of the pandemic, arguing it would reduce COVID-19 spread in workplaces.
Ford had steadfastly refused to implement such a program, pointing to an existing federal benefit, but his government indicated this week that it would finally change course.
His ministers have said a provincial policy would fill "gaps'' in a federal benefit, including reducing wait times for funds, expanding eligibility, and providing time off to get vaccinated.
Ontario reported 3,682 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 806 people in intensive care. The province also reported 40 more deaths from the virus.
As the third wave continued to hit the province hard, a group of doctors published an open letter asking Ontarians press the government into action. They recommended measures ensuring more people can work from home, increased workplace testing and vaccines targeting at the hardest-hit areas.
"This is a crucial moment for the people of Ontario, for its economy, for its people’s health and for our collective futures," the letter said. "Nobody can do this alone and we need your vocal support to keep you and your families and communities safe and out of our hospitals."
The government's science advisors said earlier this week that the province is facing its most challenging health crisis and measure such as paid sick leave, the closure of non-essential workplaces and restricting movement were urgently needed.
Ford's apology and sick-leave confirmation came Thursday at his first news conference since he announced the new COVID-19 regulations late last week. He was in self-isolation after a member of his staff tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press