Peel Region pledges fines for businesses who violate public health rules

·5 min read

TORONTO — Businesses in a prominent Ontario COVID-19 hot spot may face steep fines in the weeks ahead if they ignore rules meant to keep the virus from spreading further afield, the region's top doctor announced Saturday as the province posted yet another single-day record for new cases.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, chief medical officer of health for Peel Region, said businesses could be fined up to $5,000 a day for flouting public health protocols, warning that workplace outbreaks are driving case counts higher.

Loh issued the new public health order to create the fine system as Peel reported 497 new cases of the virus, accounting for more than a quarter of the 1,581 cases recorded provincewide in the past 24 hours.

"Spread of COVID-19 in workplaces continues to drive rising case counts in Peel," Loh said in a statement. "While most workplaces take great care to protect their employees, some employers continue to disregard the safety of their people and as a result, the Peel community."

Peel Region said Saturday it has had 116 workplace outbreaks from Sept. 1 to Nov. 13. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the region said it has investigated more than 1,500 potential COVID-19 exposures in workplaces.

Nearly 60 per cent of the outbreaks have taken place in the manufacturing, food processing, distribution, and transportation sectors.

Loh also urged employers to give their workers paid sick days to allow them to stay home if they show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.

“It’s time for employers who choose not to pay employees when they are sick to put people over profit," he said. "The cost of COVID-19 spreading across our community is far greater than the price of a few sick days.”

Loh's new public health order came as Ontario continued to report surging case counts across the province. Along with Saturday's record-setting daily tally, Ontario reported 20 new deaths associated with the novel coronavirus.

In addition to Peel's case count, Health Minister Christine Elliott said 456 of the new cases were found in Toronto, 130 in York Region and 77 in Ottawa.

The virus has also made its way back into some of the province's long-term care homes, with one facility in Toronto recording an outbreak that has so far sickened 136 residents and 66 workers since it began on Nov. 2.

Seven residents at Rockcliffe Care Community have died.

Sienna Senior Living, which owns Rockcliffe, said Saturday that it's working to contain the virus's spread.

"The safety of everyone in our residences is our highest priority as the province experiences unprecedented rates of COVID-19," a spokeswoman said.

Toronto moved into the "red zone" of Ontario's COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday, though officials in the city have implemented their own set of stricter rules in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

The change comes a day after Premier Doug Ford lowered the threshold for partial shutdowns in the government's colour-coded system for pandemic rules.

Toronto was to move to the most restrictive level short of a lockdown -- even if the threshold remained higher.

But the city has opted to extend earlier closures imposed by the province, meaning indoor dining will still be barred, and shutdowns at casinos, bingo halls and event spaces will continue.

Toronto Mayor John Tory also issued an appeal to city residents celebrating Diwali to stick to online gatherings rather than in-person celebrations.

"I do ask you to celebrate Diwali in every respect within the bounds of the public health advice that we've all been given," he said. "Wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a face covering, avoid crowded scenes. I know this is hard when Diwali is all about being together and celebrating together."

Hamilton, Halton and York regions are to move to the "red" level on Monday.

The tiered system has faced criticism since it was announced last week, with many health experts including the Ontario Medical Association calling it too lax.

Critics have noted that, among other things, indoor dining is permitted in restaurants and bars even under the red alert level.

Meanwhile, a large group of protesters took to the streets of a small southwestern Ontario town on Saturday to voice their opposition to the province's latest efforts to impose public health restrictions.

Hundreds of maskless people marched along a walking path running through St. Thomas, Ont., under the eye of local police.

Handfuls of counter-protesters dotted their route and occasionally exchanged barbs with the marchers, but the event unfolded peacefully.

Much farther north, the chief of the Neskantaga First Nation said late Friday a contractor has tested positive for COVID-19 in the remote northwestern Ontario community.

Chief Christopher Moonias said in a statement that the community, which is already grappling with a tainted water crisis, will be locked down as a result and all passenger flights will be grounded.

Everyone in the community is required to get tested for COVID-19 as a result of the positive test, he added.

Moonias said contractors should have been kept separate from community members, so the risk of COVID-19 spreading should be low.

It's the latest problem for the community, which had to be evacuated in October after high levels of hydrocarbons in a water reservoir forced officials to turn off the pipes.

Neskantaga has Canada's longest-standing on-reserve boil-water advisory, in place for 25 years.

Ottawa has promised to provide $16 million for upgrades in Neskantaga, and has said it will cover the costs of evacuating community members and providing bottled water for the residents who stayed behind.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the first name of Dr. Lawrence Loh as "Laurence"