City of Toronto sends 'non-essential' staff home, shuts more facilities amid COVID-19 outbreak
Chris Fox, Joshua Freeman and Chris Herhalt, CP24.com
Published Tuesday, March 17, 2020 7:09AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, March 17, 2020 6:50PM EDT
The City of Toronto is stepping up its COVID-19 response on the heels of an emergency declaration by the province.
Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who is leading the city’s emergency response, said the city is scaling back or changing the delivery of a slew of non-essential services.
Among the changes, Toronto City Hall, Metro Hall and all civic centres will be closed to the public as of Wednesday. Pegg also said the emergency command centre has transitioned to a level 3 operation as of today.
A full list of affected city services is available online and is being updated daily.
However essential services, including police, fire, paramedics, garbage collection, water and others will continue.
“I want to reassure everyone that essential public services provided by the city of Toronto are being maintained,” Pegg said. “We are continuing to manage the COVID-19 situation and will continue to update you as the situation changes and as any further adjustments to city services are implemented.”
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that Toronto now has 108 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including four people who were diagnosed and have since recovered.
de Villa implored people to stay home where possible. She said social distancing works to halt the spread of the virus, but it takes time.
"It needs to be applied at the right dose with a sufficient amount of time," she said.
She also reiterated that anyone who has travelled anywhere, especially to the United States, should stay home and avoid contact with people for 14 days after returning home.
"My message to you today is simply this: Stay at home, stay safe and take care of each other," de Villa said.
Non-essential city workers sent home, city hall shut down
Mayor John Tory said earlier in the day that the city is sending home all “non-essential” staff and closing both City Hall and Metro Hall to the public in a bid to further stop the spread of COVID-19 in the city.
“This will make a difference if we all work together and follow the advice of our health officials to limit contact with each other,” Tory, who remains in self-isolation at home, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.
Tory said that all city workers outside of the fields of emergency services, water and wastewater, shelters, long-term care, garbage, recycling, Toronto Hydro and the TTC are going home “immediately.”
“We will recall city staff on a priority basis as the COVID-19 situation evolves,” Tory said. “Everyone will continue to be paid and will not be laid off.”
He said staff will work from home wherever possible.
The City of Toronto has 108 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infection, or roughly half of Ontario’s confirmed case count. Four Toronto residents were infected, but have since recovered.
Earlier Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford declared a provincial emergency, closing all licenced childcare centres and banning all gatherings of more than 50 people.
On Monday, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health asked all restaurants and bars to halt dine-in service and appealed to movie theatres, nightclubs and concert venues to close their doors.
So far, similar recommendations have not been made for non-essential retail businesses such as clothing stores, though many have chosen to close without a formal request being made by public health officials.
City mulling mall closures
At this point most malls in the city do remain open, though largely with curtailed hours. Cadillac Fairview for instance has reduced its hours to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Speaking with CP24 on Tuesday morning, Tory said that officials “have been talking about” whether shopping malls should stay open at all, especially in light of advice from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health warning against gatherings of 50 or more people.
That advice has now been made mandatory after the province issued a state of emergency and formally banned all public gatherings with more than 50 people.
“We have been talking about it and I would just say we are looking at these things on a one-by-one basis,” Tory told CP24 prior to that announcement. “The medical officer of health is concerned that you don’t want to shut people off from some of the necessities they might need so grocers and pharmacies will stay open no matter what but we will see. I was questioning yesterday how many necessities you need to get at a mall at this point in time if you can go to the grocery store or the pharmacy.”
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams was asked why he hasn’t made any directive to malls to close during a press conference on Tuesday morning. He said that while officials have “looked at that,” they are still “watching to see what will happen” with the evolving threat posed by COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford also said that there were no plans to order the closures of malls, at least at this time.
Some Ontarians, however, are increasingly raising concerns about whether malls should be ordered to close. One petition circulating on Change.org had more than 2,300 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Right now we are just focused on making sure that bars, places of worship, any place that people gather we just want to make sure that we have social distancing to the best of our ability but again we need cooperation from the public,” Ford told reporters earlier in the day. “I think the public is aware of the situation and I am very, very grateful for the people of Ontario and the way they have been reacting so far.”
City also moving to protect homeless population, refugees
City officials also said Tuesday that they are working to protect the city’s homeless population.
Mary-Anne Bedard, the city’s general manager of Shelter, Support & Housing Administration, said a number of measures are being implemented to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the city’s homeless.
“The city is committed to continuing to look after people who are experiencing homelessness,” Bedard said. “We are working closely with all levels of government to ensure a fulsome response.
All 24-hour, city run services for the homeless will continue, as will street outreach services, Bedard said.
She said many people experiencing homelessness have underlying chronic medical conditions that make them vulnerable.
“The risk of spread of COVID-19 within the shelter system is significant,” Bedard said. She added that as of today, there are no known cases within the system.
“We know we need to act quickly to delay the introduction and spread of COVID-19. This will give us critical time that is needed for planning so that we are prepared for what we know will happen in the coming days and weeks,” she said.
Bedard said the city is working to create more space within the shelter system so as to allow its users to practice social distancing.
“The first spaces opened yesterday and by the end of this week the plan is for 200 spaces within city facilities that are currently empty,” the city said a in a news release. “This will not create additional capacity in our shelters, but will allow the City to move people within existing programs, particularly the 24-hour respite sites and 24-hour drop-ins.”
The city is also is creating isolation spaces, outside the regular shelter system, for homeless people who are tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting test results, and is working with provincial partners to devise a service for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19 and are required to isolate.
Some 200 beds for self-isolation are also being set up for new refugees who have come to the city over the past 14 days.