Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Canada’s most populous province on Tuesday in a bid to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The announcement came hours before news broke that Ontario’s first presumptive death from the novel coronavirus had been reported in the Muskoka region.
The emergency declaration means the immediate mandatory closure of all bars, restaurants, child-care centres, theatres and recreation centres. It will run until at least the end of March. Essential services will remain available, with public transit, grocery stores, public services and office spaces still open or available.
Malls will also remain open, a decision that’s controversial. More than 2,000 people have signed a Change.org petition started three days ago calling for malls in Ontario to be closed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“I think you have to look at the social and economic impact of every measure that you take," said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health. "Some people in essential services still need to get to work, people still need to buy food, people still need to do certain things to keep life going, and we do need to be able to get around."
The emergency declaration follows a similar move by Quebec made last Thursday, while some Canadian cities have also made such declarations, which enable additional funding to be made available and measures to be taken in response to a disaster. And later Tuesday, Alberta made a similar announcement.
"We're doing everything we can to slow the spread," Ford said at an early morning news conference at Queen's Park flanked by Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Finance Minister Rod Phillips.
Later in the day, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said Ontario is struggling to process a backlog of COVID-19 tests and to get ahold of more test kits.
"We’re looking at different varieties and trying to purchase more and more of those," he said. "That has been a challenge because there’s been large global demand. We found out a lot of those basic swab kits are made in northern Italy, so that is a challenge in itself."
Ontario declares state of emergency in effort to slow spread of COVID-19, closing bars, restaurants, child-care centres, theatres and recreation centres until at least the end of March.
The province is also working on more concrete criteria for who should be tested for the virus, he said. Though those decisions should take into account travel history, contact with infected people, whether someone is a healthcare worker and other factors like age, people who have no symptoms will not be tested right now, Dr. Williams added.
Though several cases in Ontario are suspected to be the result of community transmission, Dr. Williams maintained that they hadn't been confirmed but asked the public to practice social distancing as a precaution anyway.
“Let’s assume it probably is community spread," he said.
More clarity required
The leaders of the three other political parties represented in Ontario’s legislature expressed support for the move, although the leader of the official opposition NDP, Andrea Horwath, said more clarity was required.
“People are feeling increasingly anxious and frustrated to see some concrete plans that folks can rely on,” she told a nearly deserted news conference as journalists watched remotely and pooled questions to those in attendance.
She said one member of her caucus had heard from a constituent casino worker who was laid off on Monday. They sought Employment Insurance and were told it would take four to six weeks to be processed and would not cover the first week of lost pay.
(The federal government, which administers the EI scheme, had said the one-week waiting period was being waived for COVID-19 related job losses.)
“Although we keep hearing that the federal government and the provincial government are working together to support people, we’re not seeing concrete plans,” she said.
Horwath said her party expected to sit with the government later on Tuesday to walk through legislation they plan to table at an emergency session scheduled for Thursday, which includes measures to protect the jobs of workers who must miss work due to the coronavirus crisis.
In brief statements the new Liberal leader, Steven Del Duca, and the leader of the provincial Green Party, Mike Schreiner, said they supported the declaration.
“We must do everything we can to protect the people of Ontario,” Del Duca said. “These are unprecedented times, but I have confidence that Ontarians will rise to the challenge.”
Schreiner added: “Every hour counts to limit the spread of Covid-19 and prepare our healthcare system for what is to come.”
“Ontarians are adjusting to a tectonic shift in their lives, and we all must pull together to support each other through these uncertain times.”
We have also announced the first stage of our COVID-19 Emergency Relief Package. Over $304 million has been committed to more beds, assessment centres, medical supplies and ensuring resources for northern, rural and remote communities.— Doug Ford (@fordnation) March 17, 2020
Ford also announced a $300 million emergency relief package to "protect the people of Ontario during this difficult time." Phillips said two-thirds of the money was federal funds and the other $100 million is a previously announced amount the province is providing.
The money, the first stage of an emergency relief package, will help fund 75 more critical-care hospital beds, 500 post-acute-care beds, additional assessment centres and more personal protective equipment and ventilators.
"We want to flatten the curve, put more resources until we can handle any influx. We have to be ready for any scenario," Ford said.
The Ontario legislature is being recalled to sit on Thursday to pass COVID-19-related measures, including legislation to protect the jobs of workers who must miss work due to the coronavirus crisis.
Finance Minister Phillips said a fiscal update next week will focus on measures to deal with the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. The province’s full annual budget has been postponed.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 12:15 p.m. Eastern time to add comments from the leaders of the provincial NDP, Liberal and Green parties, as well as to note first presumptive death in Ontario. It was updated again at 2:40 p.m. to include additional comments from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, and again at 6:37 p.m. to include additional information from public health officials in Ontario.