Premier Doug Ford promises ‘good news’ later this week as COVID-19 lockdown is extended

Ontario will remain on coronavirus lockdown until June 2, but Premier Doug Ford is set to announce the next stage of businesses and services allowed to reopen.

MPPs returned to Queen’s Park on Tuesday for the first time in a month to vote on COVID-19 response measures with Ford promising “good news” later this week.

“On Thursday, we will share more details about the next stage of reopening our province,” the premier told reporters at his daily teleconference.

“We’ll be reopening more low-risk workplaces, seasonal businesses, and essential services,” he said, apparently referring to marinas, golf courses, and other outdoor businesses as well as surgical procedures that were cancelled because of the outbreak.

“We can get more people back to work. We have been through a lot these past few weeks, we have sacrificed so much, we’ve lost loved ones in this fight, but we remain resilient and unbreakable.”

Ford will announce on Thursday the official date of the launch of the first two-week stage of the three-stage reopening “framework” released by Finance Minister Rod Phillips on April 27.

Officials cautioned that does not mean Ontarians will necessarily see additional businesses immediately opening up on Thursday or Friday.

Instead, the premier and treasurer — in consultation with Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health — will set a provisional target for beginning the countdown to more widespread reopening.

Williams has emphasized he needs to see a continued decline in new COVID-19 cases for as long as two weeks before giving the green light.

But as of Monday, Ford had already permitted all retailers with a street entrance to offer curbside pickup and opened up hardware stores to full-service shopping.

The Progressive Conservative government has introduced 80 safety guidelines various businesses must meet, including personal protective equipment for employees, handwashing protocols, and physical distancing in the workplace.

“We will have inspectors going into stores to make sure they inspect and they’re following the proper processes to make sure not only their staff, but their customers are safe, as well,” he said.

The premier hinted that campgrounds and trailer parks could soon open and that the cap limiting gatherings to five or fewer people could be increased.

“We’re in full discussion with the chief medical officer regarding the numbers — if we’re going to move it from five to 10. But that will be the chief medical officer’s call,” he said.

“We’ll have some positive news coming out very shortly on that, because it’s about fairness and we have to be fair to the people that own the trailers and the campers as well.”

However, Ford would not say when dog groomers would be allowed to reopen, a source of consternation among some pet owners.

With Tuesday’s extension of the state of emergency, which has been in place since March 17, Ontario will effectively be locked down for 77 days before it is set to expire on June 2.

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Independent MPP Randy Hillier (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston) expressed concern about continuing to give government such sweeping, unchecked powers.

“We have suspended the role and function of our representative government and have enacted laws by decree. We have suspended many civil liberties and have ignored constitutional protections,” said Hillier.

“I reject the continuation of this state of emergency. There is no longer justification nor merit to a continuation of arbitrary authority. We must return to due process and we will overcome the effects of the virus,” he said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, repeatedly pressed Ford to call an independent public inquiry into the crisis in long-term-care homes, scene of most COVID-19 deaths.

“As the premier has admitted, the system is definitely broken,” said Horwath.

Liberal MPP John Fraser (Ottawa South) warned that when it comes to catching up on testing people to ensure it’s safe to open up again “we’re going to be doing this for a while.”

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said Ontario’s testing shortfall means “we cannot put the cart before the horse” and reopen the economy.

“We cannot send people back to crowded workplaces without promising to keep them safe,” said Schreiner.

Under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, only businesses deemed essential have been operating, such as supermarkets, pharmacies, LCBO and Beer Stores.

Bars and restaurants must remain shut except for takeout service, though liquor licensing laws have been loosened to allow them to sell beer, wine and spirits to go.

All recreational facilities are closed for the time being. Scofflaws face fines ranging from $ 750 to $ 100,000 plus one year in jail.

Robert Benzie
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie