On April 27, 2020, Ontario released A Framework for Reopening our Province (the “Framework”), a three-stage plan for reopening Ontario’s economy once the COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside, including the reopening of businesses, services, and public spaces.
It is crucial to note that the Framework is a plan on how the government will re-open Ontario not when it will do so. That said, the Framework does contain criteria that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and other health experts will use in advising the government on when each stage of the Framework can/should be initiated.
The three stages of the Framework are as follows.
- Opening select workplaces of businesses, but only if they can immediately modify their operations to meet public health guidelines.
- Opening certain public spaces and allowing more than five people to attend certain events.
- Allowing hospitals to perform some non-urgent and scheduled surgeries, as well as other health care services.
- Opening additional workplaces, including some service industry, office, and retail workplaces, as guided by risk assessments.
- Opening more public outdoor spaces.
- Allowing for some larger public gatherings.
- Allowing all workplaces to reopen, but in a responsible manner.
- Further reducing restrictions on public gatherings.
The government has stated that public health officials will carefully monitor the specific circumstances in Ontario for two to four weeks during each stage (“Evaluation Periods”), before the next stage can be initiated.
The criteria used by health experts to assess the situation and advise the government include:
- consistent decreases in daily COVID-19 cases during the Evaluation Periods;
- sufficient acute and critical care capacity at hospitals, including ventilator and personal protective equipment (“PPE”) availability;
- the ability of local public health officials to reach roughly 90% of new COVID-19 contacts within 24-hours, to provide instruction on how to prevent it from spreading; and
- the detection of new outbreaks, especially among vulnerable populations, through ongoing testing of suspected cases.
As the Framework makes clear, Ontario employers can expect a gradual and measured approach to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. Accordingly, it is unlikely that the province will be back to business as usual any time soon. Nonetheless, the Framework provides a light at the end of the tunnel, and represents the beginning of a path back to normalcy, or some semblance of it.
When the government begins implementing the Framework, employers will need to remain agile and flexible, given that restrictions will be loosened or lifted on an ad-hoc basis and that they may subsequently be tightened or imposed once again if the public health circumstances warrant it.
Further, employers must recognize that the path back to normalcy is actually a path to a new normal. Employers need to ensure that they take every precaution that is reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of their employees through policies and practices that are carefully tailored to the constantly evolving situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only is it the right thing to do, doing so will help employers avoid exposures under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Similarly, given the time-limited availability of governmental supports for businesses that are struggling financially due to COVID-19 (although they may be extended), employers in such circumstances should carefully consider their business continuity plans in light of the economic uncertainty that will almost certainly follow the pandemic. In particular, employers should assess whether it will be feasible to maintain their full work force and/or recall laid-off employees if the economy is slow to recover and relief measures such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (“CEWS”) are not extended. Therefore, employers may need to make some difficult choices to ensure that their businesses remain viable in the long-term.
Additionally, employers that made significant changes to their business models to deal with their operational realities during the pandemic, such as implementing online or phone orders, curbside pickup of goods, delivery of goods, and remote service delivery, should now turn their minds to what changes they would benefit from maintaining, and what elements they may wish to transition to pre-pandemic norms.
We will diligently keep you In the Know with updates when the Ontario government begins implementing the Framework, along with implications of new developments for your business.
This blog is provided as an information service and summary of workplace legal issues. This information is not intended as legal advice.