TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford indicated Friday he won’t be putting a freeze on commercial evictions, but pleaded with “vicious” landlords to be flexible with business tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario has effectively banned residential evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many business groups and opposition parties have been calling on the province to do the same for commercial tenants.

Closures of many businesses across the province deemed non-essential during the pandemic have meant that they are struggling to pay bills, including rent. A federal-provincial rent relief program has been announced but has not yet taken effect, and some businesses have said their landlords won’t participate.

Calls for a moratorium on commercial evictions have been growing louder as Saturday approaches — the day when landlords could change the locks on businesses for non-payment of May’s rent.

But Ford said there could be legal implications if the government wades into long-term lease contracts.

“I’m pleading with landlords, be flexible,” Ford said.

“You know what drives me crazy? I can’t stand these vicious landlords. They are. You’ve got to protect the little guy all the time. They’re struggling. I just wish they could hang in there for a couple of months. It’s not the end of the world. To all the big landlords out there — have a heart.”

The Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance will see Ottawa and the provinces give forgivable loans to commercial property owners to cover 50 per cent of rent for eligible small businesses, with the tenant covering 25 per cent.

“If the tenant moves out, what does the landlord think, they’re going to have an army of people wanting to move in?” Ford said.

“They’re going to sit there vacant, so if I were them I’d take 75 per cent. I think that’s a pretty good deal for landlords. You either get 75 per cent or you get zero.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has called for changes to the rent relief program so more businesses qualify, and has also urged eviction protection for commercial tenants. Restaurants Canada has called for the same protection for commercial tenants.

The Broadview Danforth Business Improvement Association and Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas conducted a survey of local businesses and found that 63 per cent of businesses could not make all of May’s rent and 60 per cent don’t think their landlord will apply for the rent relief program.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said that isn’t good enough for small businesses at risk of being locked out of a space “they’ve poured their dreams into.”

“Small businesses don’t need a cheerleader; they need the Premier to act now to ban commercial rent evictions,” he said in a statement.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on the province to immediately freeze commercial evictions and provide a direct rent subsidy to small business.

“If we’re not able to shore up small businesses and ensure they get through COVID-19 … then that it is going to have a huge, negative economic impact on our province,” she said.

Bar owner Nathan Hynes expressed his frustration with what he views as a non-committal approach government has taken to requests for help from small businesses.

“Each day that goes by, it feels more and more like we’re being treated like an expendable industry,” he said. “If that was the case, I would prefer honesty. I would prefer them say, ‘There’s no future for your industry, we can’t afford to bail you out.’”

The first stage of Ontario’s economic reopening is set for Tuesday, with some businesses allowed to resume, including retail, some sports centres with activities that can be done with physical distancing, vehicle dealerships, veterinarians for regular appointments, pet groomers, and domestic services such as house cleaners.

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 341 new COVID-19 cases Friday and 27 more deaths.

The province said that due to a glitch, Thursday’s numbers were under-reported, so there were actually 345 new cases that day, instead of the reported 258.

The new total of cases in the province is now 21,922, including 1,825 deaths and 16,641 cases that have been resolved.

The adjusted numbers mean that the growth rate of new cases has been a steady 1.6 per cent over the past three days.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario’s new daily cases are still on a downward trend.

The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 dropped sharply, from 1,026 to 986, and the amount of people in intensive care and on ventilators decreased too.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2020.

— with files from Shawn Jeffords

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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