Ontario Premier Doug Ford has declared a state of emergency in a bid to combat the spread of COVID-19 and prevent the novel coronavirus from overwhelming the province’s health-care system.
The move comes as Ontario recorded its first COVID-19-related death: a man in his 70s at Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, a city about 100 kilometres north of Toronto. Sources in the Ministry of Health told CBC News the man contracted COVID-19 during close contact with an infected person.
Ford didn’t reference the death during his remarks, but the premier did underscore the danger the virus poses.
“We’re facing an unprecedented time in our history. This is a decision that was not made lightly,” Ford said at a Tuesday morning news conference at Queen’s Park. He was joined by Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Health Minister Christine Elliott, Finance Minister Rod Phillips and Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer.
“COVID-19 constitutes a danger of major proportions,” he continued. “We must act decisively. We must not delay.”
As part of the declaration, the province will mandate the closure of restaurants and bars, though those that can offer takeout and delivery can continue selling food items.
The province is also prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people, including at indoor recreation centres, theatres and concert venues, libraries, places of worship, private schools and licensed daycares until March 31. Ontario previously ordered all publicly-funded schools to close until April 6.
The order does not yet apply to public transit, shopping malls, grocery stores and pharmacies, Williams said.
Ford stressed that the state of emergency does not constitute a “provincial shutdown.”
“The vast majority of businesses, including those most vital to day-to-day life, will not be affected by this order,” he said.
As of this morning, 185 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Ontario, though five are considered resolved. Cases are spread geographically throughout the province, though the majority are concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area.
According to the Ministry of Health sources, the infected man who died from the illness did not test positive for coronavirus until after his death.
Updated figures on the state of COVID-19 in Ontario are expected to be released later, at around 5:30 p.m ET.
At the news conference, Ford also announced the “first stage” of a COVID-19 emergency relief fund. He said that $300 million — $100 million from the province and $200 million from Ottawa — will be used to add 75 critical-care beds and 500 post-acute care beds at Ontario hospitals. It will also go to establishing 25 more COVID-19 dedicated assessment centres in the province.
Ford added that the funds will be used to purchase more personal protective equipment for medical professionals and backfill 1,000 additional nurses and personal support workers at hospitals dealing with an influx of cases. Fifty physicians will also be assigned for primary and emergency care in Indigenous, rural and remote communities in Ontario, Ford said.
Additional measures could be implemented in the coming days, he said.
“This is changing hour-by-hour, day-by-day,” Ford told reporters.
The legislation that gives the premier and his cabinet the power to declare a state of emergency is the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. Among the powers it gives to the premier is the authority to close “any place, whether public or private, including any business, office, school, hospital or other establishment or institution.”
Meanwhile, provincial and Toronto health authorities have said that community spread of the illness can no longer be ruled out.
In a statement, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he welcomed the decision to declare a state of emergency.
“I hope the seriousness of this declaration will make it clear to every resident how important their personal actions will be in the coming days,” he said.
“Our public health experts have been clear that every opportunity to avoid interactions with others helps to prevent the spread of this virus. Every interaction that people avoid helps to flatten the curve.”
Some medical professionals, however, said that the emergency measures outlined by the province do not go far enough.
Dr. Michael Warner, director for critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in east Toronto, told CBC Radio’s The Current that he is “highly concerned that our elected officials are not mandating social distancing to the degree required.”
Limiting group gatherings to 50 people is still too many, he said.
“The attack rate for COVID-19 is estimated to be between 30 and 70 per cent. If we take a group of 50, that means 15 to 35 people in that group can be infected by one person,” Warner continued.
“We need to shut everything down right now.”
Legislation for workers
And at a news conference on Monday, Ford and several ministers outlined additional impending legislation to ban employers from demanding sick notes for those in self-isolation or quarantine because of COVID-19.
Employers will also have to ensure protected leave for workers who have to take unpaid leave to be in self-isolation or quarantine.
The provincial legislature is scheduled to sit on Thursday, and Ford said he hopes to have all pending measures passed in a single day with the co-operation of the Opposition NDP.
If you have lingering questions about COVID-19 in Canada and how it may affect you and your family, you may find this CBC News guide helpful.