On December 21, 2020, the Ontario government announced province-wide shutdown measures, similar to those recently enacted by the governments of Alberta, Qu é bec, and Manitoba. The government cited the "alarming rate" at which COVID-19 cases are increasing due to travel between public health regions that are subject to different levels of restriction, and the strain on the healthcare system as the driving forces behind the province-wide shutdown.
The measures come into effect at 12:01 a.m. EST on December 26, 2020, and will last for a minimum of 28 days until January 23, 2021, for regions in southern Ontario (which includes the greater Toronto area and nearby regions already under strict lockdown measures). The measures will be in effect for a minimum of 14 days until January 9, 2021, for regions in northern Ontario. The measures appear to mirror some of the earlier restrictions imposed by the province in the spring of 2020 in response to COVID-19. The government has amended O.Reg. 82/20 to limit the list of "Businesses that may open" and to impose additional restrictions on business activities and in-person capacity.
Some of the key shutdown measures impacting employers include the following:
- "Winter break" will be extended for elementary and
high school students for an additional one to two weeks.
- For elementary schools, in-class learning cannot resume before January 11, 2020.
- For secondary schools, those in northern Ontario may resume in-class learning on January 11, 2020, but those in southern Ontario will not resume in-class learning before January 25, 2020.
- Child care will generally remain open.
- All indoor social gatherings are prohibited, with exceptions for individuals living alone who "may consider having exclusive, close contact with another household."
- Non-essential businesses are not permitted to open for in-person shopping, however curbside pickup and delivery are permitted.
- "Discount and big box retailers" selling groceries are limited to 25 percent capacity for in-store shopping (they are otherwise required to close or operate curbside pick-up or delivery only).
- Essential retailers, such as groceries and pharmacies, may not exceed 50 percent capacity and must "maintain two metres physical distance" for in-store shopping.
- Restaurants and bars are prohibited from hosting indoor dining, but may continue to operate take out, drive through, and delivery.
- Remote work is encouraged in all industries, and the government is formally recommending that employers "enable and support workers to work remotely and accommodate household needs related to virtual education and dependent care."
- Inter-provincial travel "should be limited to only essential purposes" and those who arrive or return to Ontario from outside the province are encouraged to observe a 14-day quarantine, similar to the federal quarantine rules for international travel.
- Businesses that are permitted to be open must prepare a COVID-19 safety plan and post it in a conspicuous location in the workplace. This requirement already applied in certain regions that were subject to "grey" level lockdown measures, but it now appears it will apply province-wide for any business that remains open.
The government has also strongly encouraged Ontarians to stay home and not to leave absent "essential purposes" such as work, groceries, pharmacy, or medical appointments. However, the government has not issued shelter-in-place orders or curfews as of this publication.
Along with recommending that individuals observe a 14-day quarantine following inter-provincial travel, Premier Doug Ford held a press conference during which he announced that he had asked the federal government to implement stricter measures on quarantine and COVID-19 testing for international travelers. Ford indicated that if the federal government does not so impose stricter quarantine and testing measures, he would consider imposing additional restrictions on international travelers after they arrive in the province.
Key Takeaways for Employers
For employers in Ontario, the government's request to use remote work wherever possible is an important message. It is possible that we may see a return to the first set of COVID-19 restrictions implemented in the spring of 2020, in which non-essential workers were not permitted to work in offices and other workplaces, and remote work arrangements were effectively mandatory. The province has also indicated that it expects employers to be flexible in terms of dependent care needs as part of this 14-28 day shutdown. Employers with employees who travel internationally or between provinces may wish to consider whether their travel constitutes essential travel, and if not, they may wish to reconsider such travel plans.
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