Ontario delays release of full budget; province has seen 177 cases of COVID-19

ontario

Ontario is delaying the release of its budget as it prepares to weather economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, while it also ramps up assessment and testing capacity to deal with ever-increasing numbers of new cases.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips will deliver a scaled-back forecast on March 25 instead of the planned full budget, with a one-year economic outlook that will detail what fiscal resources will be available in the coming year for sectors such as health care and municipalities.

"It's important that I introduce a financial plan for the province that is as current as possible given the dynamic situation," he said.

Phillips said the full budget would be released as late as the fall. The province last week announced a $100-million COVID-19 contingency fund.

Ontario reported 32 new COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the total in the province to 177.

The new cases are across the province, including in Hamilton, Ottawa and Sudbury, but the majority are in the Greater Toronto Area.

New patients are all self-isolating, but other information – including their ages and how they became infected – is sparse.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, chalked that up to new lab testing sites that have opened up to accommodate increased demand being unable so far to quickly enter that supplementary information.

But, he said, evidence of community spread is not yet there.

"So far, ones we've seen when we do their complete investigation they usually have some contact with a case in the past (or have a travel history)," Williams said. "It takes some time to do that full investigation."

Ontario's public health lab can process 1,000 tests per day, and with the additional sites that is now up to about 2,000, Williams said. He hopes to get to 5,000 soon.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is not yet at the point of ordering the closure of bars and restaurants.

"If we have to do that...we will do that, but we don't believe we're at that stage yet," she said. "But this is a rapidly changing situation."

Premier Doug Ford said there are some "rough waters ahead," but the government is looking out for Ontario workers and families.

"We're prepared to do whatever it takes and we're taking every step possible to slow the spread of this virus," Ford said.

The province over the weekend announced it is drafting legislation to ban employers from requiring sick notes for those in self-isolation or quarantine. It will also ensure protected leave for workers who have to take unpaid leave to isolate themselves or care for others, such as children not in school.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said it will be retroactive to Jan. 25 and will stay in place "until this disease is defeated."

Shortly after coming to office in 2018, Ford's government repealed labour legislation introduced by the previous government that gave workers two paid sick days a year and banned the practice of requiring sick notes.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she wants the new legislation to protect people from losing a paycheque, guarantee protections for missing a rent or mortgage payment, and offer financial support for those not covered by Employment Insurance.

The premier noted that the province has already closed schools for two weeks following March break, launched a $10-million public awareness campaign, limited visitors at long-term care homes, and expanded testing.

There are now 17 dedicated testing centres open across the province, Ford said, and the province launched an online self-assessment tool that people are encouraged to use as a first step.

Following complaints of long wait times for Telehealth Ontario services, the province announced Monday it is adding 130 more nurses to the system for symptom assessment and referrals. Telehealth is working to add more intake staff so that wait times are reduced for people to make initial contact with a representative.

The province is also working with the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario to expand supports using its 44,000 registered nurse members, Elliott said.

Elliott and Social Services Minister Todd Smith also announced that youth justice facilities have been told to suspend all personal visits and volunteer activities. All "non-essential" leaves for helping youth in custody reintegrate into the community are being restricted.

Video-calling can still be used for family to stay in touch with youth in those facilities. Lawyers will still be able to visit their clients but should consider using teleconferencing instead, the ministers said.