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MPPs clear the way to suspend legislature as Ontario reports 17 new COVID-19 cases
March 13, 2020
Rob Ferguson

MPPs have given Premier Doug Ford’s government the authority to suspend the Ontario Legislature over COVID-19 concerns as the province named six viral assessment centres, paused public health cuts and officials recommended gatherings of more than 1,000 people be scrapped.

The developments came as coronavirus cases in Ontario surged by 17 in just 24 hours -- including a baby boy -- for a total of 59, five of which have recovered and been cleared. Seven of the new cases were people who had returned from the neighbouring United States.

“The risk for travelling Ontarians is not low,” chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams warned on the eve of the annual March break, which usually sees thousands of people head south and abroad.

Williams also said he would “prefer” large events be cancelled, delayed or moved online, and cautioned parents against visits to museums or malls with their children. “I would suggest not to go to public venues,” he said.

The first wave of COVID-19 assessment centres will be separate from emergency departments at Brampton Civic Hospital, the Ottawa Hospital, North York General Hospital, Mackenzie Health in York Region, Scarborough Health Network, and Trillium Health in Mississauga.

“We’re preparing for the worst-case scenario,” said Health Minister Christine Elliott.

The province said “one-time mitigation funding” will be extended to offset controversial cuts to municipal public health in last year’s provincial budget, keeping 2021 levels equal to this year’s because of the “considerable time and resources necessary for public health units to effectively respond to COVID-19.”

Critics have repeatedly slammed Ford for the cuts and said the new coronavirus outbreak proves them right.

“Anything that reduces public health’s ability to deal with these kinds of situations is troubled,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto’s public health board, told the Star that provincial public health cuts for 2019 cost the city $4.3 million, which the city covered, and planned cuts were expected to cost Toronto $14 million next year.

Ford was not budging. “Right now we’re taking it year-by-year,” he said Thursday.

Before MPPs left Queen’s Park for March break, they passed a motion allowing the government to suspend the spring session up until June 4 as a health protection measure.

“It’s not just about the provincial parliament, it’s about all of you, it’s about the people who work here, and out of an abundance of caution,” Government House Leader Paul Calandra told reporters.

Hundreds of political staff, legislative staff, civil servants, politicians and journalists work in close contact in and around the legislature, with many arriving on public transit from across the GTA and beyond.

A suspension could disrupt the scheduled March 25 spring budget from Finance Minister Rod Phillips, which must be presented in the legislature. Williams warned a plan to “lock up” 2,000 journalists and stakeholders to preview the fiscal blueprint would be “concerning” for health reasons.

Williams said he has not given any advice on the legislature and noted any suspension should be based on “evidence of a health hazard,” such as a “potential exposure” of someone in the precinct.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the motion makes sense.

“In these uncertain and unprecedented times, we must be prepared to take drastic action to keep people safe, including social distancing.”