At its first-ever virtual meeting, Toronto City Council voted Thursday to unanimously extend Mayor John Tory’s emergency powers, as well as the physical distancing bylaws that he enacted for the city.

The vote allows Tory to continue to act on behalf of council to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tory has effectively served as a one-man city council since declaring a state of emergency on March 23, able to pass bylaws and take other actions unilaterally.

“I am proud of how the City has responded to this ongoing emergency. In the face of these challenges, great work has been done quickly by Dr. Eileen de Villa and her public health team, the emergency operations centre led by Chief Matthew Pegg, and staff across each city division, under the leadership of our City Manager Chris Murray.

"In responding to this emergency, we’ve seen the very best of public service, with staff working tirelessly to ensure residents remains safe and critical services continue during these uncertain times. I want to thank the hundreds of thousands of Toronto residents who have done the right and the responsible thing and helped us in this ongoing war to flatten the curve and defeat this virus. You have saved lives. And by continuing to do the right thing and stay home as much as possible, you are continuing to save lives during this emergency," Tory said in a statement.

At today’s virtual meeting, the first of its kind in Toronto’s history, council voted to extend those powers until the COVID-19 municipal emergency has been declared terminated.

Council also authorized the extension of the city’s physical distancing bylaw until that point as well. It was previously supposed to be in effect until May 2.

In a letter sent to the 24 other members of city council ahead of today’s meeting, Tory said that he declared an emergency to allow the city to “respond quickly and decisively to the pandemic.”

He said that while there is now reason for “cautious optimism” in the form of a decline in new cases of COVID-19, the virus continues to leave a “devastating trail in our community” with 274 deaths to date.

For that reason, he said that the city must not ease up on its efforts.

“This is without question the greatest single challenge the city has faced in a generation at least and I think we have responded by working together, solving problems together and working hand in hand with our public service,” Tory said at the outset of today’s meeting. “Know that all of us are proud of the city government and how it has responded to this emergency.”

City council as a whole last met on Feb. 26, so it has been more than two months since they have been able to conduct business or formally question staff.

As the meeting got underway Thursday, numerous councillors used the opportunity to question staff on when council meetings might be able to resume at city hall and how proper physical distancing might be achieved.

Coun. Mike Colle also moved a motion asking the medical officer of health and city solicitor to report back on the feasibility of holding in-person meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have to do our job the best we can in a public way. We have to have more people involved than just the YouTubers,” he said, referring to a live stream of the proceedings that at that point had 730 viewers.

While Parliament and Queen’s Park have at times reconvened with a small group of members in order to pass vital legislation, council has chosen to allow Tory to act on its behalf.

It has also suspended all committee meetings during the pandemic, meaning a wide variety of business has been largely put on hold.

“Looking historically the old city of Toronto didn’t just plan for a crisis they actually built a facility for nuclear war so they could continue to meet in the worst crisis. This is something we have to embrace as well,” Coun. James Pasternak said during the meeting. “We are losing a lot during this pandemic. The stories are heartbreaking whether it be businesses or illness or fatalities but one thing I think we don’t have to lose is our democratic values.”

Councillors get update from top officials

In addition to the debate over the extension of Tory’s emergency powers, council also recied a formal update from Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and other top officials guiding the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During her presentation de Villa said that while the city is in the midst of a “major public health crisis” as well as a “social and economic emergency” that has arisen as a result, there are starting to be positive signs that suggest brighter days could be on the horizon.

Toronto’s top public health official, however, warned against complacency at this point.

“The curve is flattening off. We are in we believe the peak period in our outbreak and we are seeing new cases level and the hope is that we start to move down the curve,” she said. “That being said where we go from here depends to a large degree on our ability as a community to remain diligent in following the existing physical distancing measures that have been put into place to protect our population.”

While today’s meeting mostly resolves around matters related to the city’s COVID-19 response, there are a number of other items on the agenda, including the expansion of the city’s bike lane network.

The meeting got underway at 10 a.m. using the online video conferencing platform WebEx.

“I think they are all going to manage fine,” Tory said of his colleagues in an interview with CP24 ahead of the meeting Thursday morning. “It is fairly straightforward technology and sometimes the biggest challenge you have is getting your finger up to the screen fast enough to get yourself off mute when you are called to speak.”