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Toronto and Peel Closing Workplaces with COVID Outbreaks

April 20, 2021

Toronto and Peel Region are bringing the COVID-19 battle to workplaces. Under new public health orders, employers in Toronto and Peel must close for 10 days if they have five or more COVID-19 cases in a two-week period.

Existing rules in both regions already require employers to report to Toronto Public Health or Peel Public Health if they have two or more cases in a two-week period.

It’s often impossible to know whether the COVID cases actually came from the workplace, so under the new orders, workplaces will be required to close as long the individuals “could have reasonably acquired their infection at work” and “no obvious source of infection has been identified outside of the workplace.” In other words, public health authorities will assume cases are work-related unless there’s clear evidence otherwise.

And, as if having to shut down your business for 10 days wasn’t bad enough, public health authorities are also publishing the names of businesses with outbreaks.

Employers are “strongly recommended”, though not required, to continue paying employees during the closures.

These restrictions may seem onerous for many employers, but the reality is that a huge proportion of COVID-19 cases in Ontario stem from workplace outbreaks, with Toronto and Peel at the epicentre. Not only are essential workers getting the disease at alarming rates, but they are also spreading it to their families, especially in lower-income and multi-generational households.

Employers have always had a central role to play to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect our ICU’s, hospitals and people. Employers have both an incredible opportunity and a moral responsibility in the pandemic fight. With these new orders, however, employers could face serious financial consequences as well.

So how can you keep your workers safe, prevent outbreaks, and avoid forced closures? Here are a few key strategies:

  • Make sure anyone who can work from home, does. The virus is circulating so widely that every person who enters your workplace is another potential COVID case. And with more contagious variants, one case can easily grow to five or more. Keep bare minimum skeleton staffs on site and allow employees to work from home wherever possible. (And check out our COVID-19 page for resources on keeping remote staff productive and engaged!)
  • Upgrade masks and other PPE. More contagious variants mean greater needs for protection. If possible, offer on-site staff medical-grade masks such as N95s. If that’s not feasible, double-masking with cloth masks provides better protection than a single mask. Also consider requiring goggles at work, and make sure PPE use is consistently enforced.
  • Improve ventilation. COVID-19 is an airborne virus which travels much farther than six feet and can accumulate dangerously in poorly ventilated areas, like cigarette smoke. Good ventilation is among the best protections you can give your staff. Some ventilation improvements can be made inexpensively, such as opening doors and windows now that the weather is warmer, using industrial-strength fans, installing HEPA or other improved filtering, and maximizing air outtake within existing system parameters. Other ventilation upgrades are more costly, but can still make financial sense when compared to lost revenues from an extended shutdown – not to mention both the lost productivity costs and the human costs if good employees remain ill after the mandatory 10-day closure is over.
  • Enhance sick leave policies. Almost all of our employer clients already offer paid sick leave, but you may wish to consider temporary enhancements to your sick leave policies during the pandemic. To stop workplace spread, it’s essential that employees who feel ill or find out about a possible exposure tell you about it, get tested, and isolate at home. So, we must ensure that employees aren’t financially penalized for doing the right thing. Enhanced paid sick leave isn’t free, of course, but the cost to the employer will likely be negligible compared to the costs of a widespread outbreak.

While the new orders place added burdens on employers in Toronto and Peel Region, they also present an opportunity to tackle the virus head-on where it is spreading most. We hope these tips will help employers to protect both their businesses and their staff in these challenging times.