On January 13, York-Simcoe MPP Caroline Mulroney, Minister of Transportation and Francophone Affairs, spoke with The Post via Zoom, addressing the impact of lockdowns, provincial supports for small businesses, and the decision to return to in-class learning. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How would you describe the pandemic’s impact on the residents of York-Simcoe?
MPP Caroline Mulroney. It’s been difficult on everyone, from healthcare workers to families, to small businesses; it has impacted all of us. And, it’s dragged on much longer than anybody predicted. And, I think that has also added to the difficulty.
We don’t know how this virus evolves, and as the government, we follow the best medical advice to implement public health measures that will mitigate against the different waves. It has been challenging, and there’s no denying that.
With Omicron becoming the dominant variant, we appear to be in a new phase of the pandemic. How is the government responding?
MULRONEY There’s been a 500 per cent increase in hospitalizations over the last few weeks, so hospitalizations have been the primary concern and have guided our public health measures. We know that Omicron is so transmissible, we can’t contact trace and case manage our way out of it. So we’ve been focused on hospitalizations and ensuring that we have that capacity available, as more and more people present at hospitals around the province.
Are you confident that the measures your government has taken will stop the spread of Omicron? Or is it too soon to tell?
MULRONEY Our goal is not stopping COVID-19 in its tracks. I wish it could be a reasonable objective, but, in this case, the best we can do, and what we were trying to accomplish, is to mitigate the risk of hospitalizations.
The public health measures that we introduced were aimed at slowing the increase in cases in our hospitals, giving our hospitals a chance to shore up health and human resource capacity to make sure that we have the bed capacity in place, given that we know that there’s going to be absenteeism in the healthcare setting, as more and more people are getting COVID-19.
We follow public health advice from Dr. Kieran Moore, the Chief Medical Officer of Health. He indicated yesterday in his press conference that the rise in hospitalizations is what he believed would occur, and what we’re seeing now is the tail end of the holidays. So that’s why, in terms of public health measures, one of the things that we introduced was a 50 per cent capacity limit in specific indoor settings and restricting restaurants to take out — places where people would’ve contributed to the transmissibility. And that’s one of the reasons we had to move forward with that public health measure, to slow it down.
Your government has said it plans to lift the lockdown on January 26. Are we on track for that, or is there a possibility it will be extended?
MULRONEY Dr. Moore indicated that he’s hopeful the infection rate will slow down. And so I hope that means that we are on track to lift the measures on the 26th, but I can’t say for sure. As we’ve seen, this variant moves very quickly. We have to be nimble as we respond to the changes that we see, but we are hoping that Omicron has crested or is cresting and that we will then see a drop-off in hospitalizations.
Is that the key metric you’ll base your decision on?
MULRONEY We are looking at hospitalizations; we are also closely monitoring the impact on ICU capacity. And we have seen that, as we saw elsewhere, there was a rise just in regular hospitalization, medical and surgical beds, not in ICU occupancy. And so, as it has occurred in other jurisdictions, we’ve seen that cresting and then the coming down. So yes, hospital capacity is one of the main elements that we are looking at.
The lockdowns have severely impacted small businesses; many may not survive much longer if the pandemic continues. Do governments, both provincial and federal, need to rethink their response?
MULRONEY Well, just as COVID-19 has evolved since the beginning of the pandemic, I agree that the public health response needs to evolve with it. I think we’re moving to a situation where it is endemic, and we have to learn to live with it. And so, we all have to adapt to that. And our public health response should adapt as well. I don’t know what that might look like, but I agree that small businesses have had to bear the brunt, especially restaurants, fitness centres, and places where people congregate indoors. And, it’s a function of how the virus transmits and where it transmits the most.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have tried to provide significant levels of support to those who are most affected by it. Yes, I know that it doesn’t make up for the lost business. You know, if you’re a restaurant owner, you want to see a full restaurant, and a grant will not make up for an empty restaurant. We know that, but we are doing everything we can to support businesses through this challenging time.
Small business owners say if the lockdown is extended, they will need help paying their rent. Would your government consider working with the feds to make that happen?
MULRONEY Throughout the pandemic, when we’ve extended lockdowns, we’ve extended support. So we will absolutely be there to support small businesses if we have to extend the lockdown, which we all hope we don’t.
We’ve been focused on making sure that people are not evicted if they’re unable to pay their rent; that was the primary focus in working with the federal government to make sure that they provide adequate supports. We’ve been looking at providing grants to businesses, providing them with relief, with respect to other elements of their expenses, like their electricity rates, for instance.
So we provide electricity rate support to small businesses and farms. But, we want to make sure that we’re providing a suite of supports that will provide the help that businesses need. So we’re always looking at what we can do. But we believe that this, along with a lot of the tax relief that we’ve provided, will go a long way.
A tax deferral is one of the programs that we are pushing for, and we have to do this in partnership with the federal government. A lot of small businesses have their HST sitting in cash, waiting to remit it to the Canada Revenue Agency. And so, we’re working with the federal government to allow for a tax deferral. So, they can defer those HST remittances for some time, say six months. So they’ll therefore have all that cash that is already on hand, and they’ll be able to access it.
Small business owners feel they have been treated unfairly. They say they have followed COVID-19 safety protocols and are not responsible for community spread, but they were forced to close. Meanwhile, smaller retailers, including mom and pop shops, were closed during the earlier stages of the pandemic, while big box stores were allowed to stay open. How do we ensure fairness? An even playing field?
MULRONEY Determining what businesses stay open and what have to close are some of the hardest decisions we had to make. We were always looking at making sure there was an even playing field. We know that there has been an impact on specific sectors, more than others, obviously because of the nature of their business.
There was a lot of criticism of our decision to keep Walmart open. But that’s where a lot of people go to get their groceries and all their goods. People are continuing to work. They’re short on time. It also has more space. So it can allow people to congregate in a place with better ventilation. So I know that is not easy to hear for a small business owner with a lot of the products that a Walmart has. But that was the rationale for keeping the big box retailers open. It wasn’t designed to benefit big business; it was to protect the health and safety of the shoppers.
I recognize that our businesses have done a tremendous job following the guidelines and implementing the public health measures, making sure they have the Plexiglas separators in place, making sure they have PPE, the sanitizer, and all that. That comes at a cost, which is why we’ve sought to provide support for those kinds of expenses along the way.
Some small business owners point to the low case numbers in our region and argue there should be more of a regional approach to lockdowns; what is your view on that?
MULRONEY I heard regularly from small businesses, especially in the rural parts of York Simcoe, that they were experiencing this differently than the southern parts of the riding. And so, therefore, deserved different treatment. But the public health recommendations were such that we needed to treat everyone the same.
People are travelling back and forth. They move around the province. So, our public health measures must reflect that.
We saw cell phone data that showed that people were moving because specific public health units closed down earlier than others. It was right before last Christmas; people were travelling to the Niagara region to do their Christmas shopping at the malls there because that region was open. We could see that area was just lit up in red, so people will move to what’s open. And that was the rationale for the provincial approach.
Your government decided to suspend in-class learning; now, kids will be back in class on January 17. What changed?
MULRONEY We’ve been focused on hospitalizations and our hospital capacity, ensuring that we could meet the demands as more and more people were getting COVID-19. And so we provided time for our healthcare sector so that they could adapt to that.
I know that our government has taken the necessary steps to prepare for the return to in-class learning to ensure that it’s safe for students and educators, and staff.
As a parent myself, I also know that many parents are torn about whether they should send their kids back. We have taken the necessary steps to ensure that schools are safe and that kids do better in class.
But we have prepared for those who wish to keep their kids home. We have a remote learning option. But I believe that overall, most parents would like to see their kids return to school.
The province is reopening schools with just 45 per cent of kids over the age of five vaccinated. Are you concerned that this may lead to more outbreaks?
MULRONEY So our vaccination rates are some of the highest in the world with respect to getting kids vaccinated. We’ve also been setting up more vaccination clinics for our educators and childcare staff in the past several days. And we’re also going to make it available for kids in schools. We know that vaccines are safe, and they’re the most effective way of preventing COVID-19. But many parents have questions; we understand that. We encourage them to speak to their doctors and to call the province. There’s a Provincial Vaccine Confidence Line (1-833-943-3900) that can be accessed to get information. But, we are encouraging all parents to get their kids vaccinated because it’s the most effective way of preventing COVID-19.
The Minister of Education announced a change in the way outbreaks are handled in schools. A school won’t be closed until 30 per cent of the students and staff are absent. Why has your government made this change?
MULRONEY We support Dr. Moore’s recommendation to proceed this way. That’s why we introduced it. Omicron is different from Delta. It’s much more transmissible, but it is less virulent. So our public health measures have to shift with the virus as it changes; our response needs to change.
I know people are reacting to this change, but the 30 per cent is not new in school boards. It’s a threshold that schools have used in other settings.
But in terms of school safety and ensuring that parents have confidence, we have made significant investments in our schools to make sure they are safe for students. Helping educators and child care staff get vaccinated with mass vaccination clinics—increasing ventilation, HEPA filters in all our schools, we have 3000 more units going in this week. N95 masks for all our educators. Each student was given five tests before Christmas, and they will get more rapid tests going forward. All have to go through a rigorous daily self-screening before going to school. And I know that parents won’t send their kids to school if they are symptomatic. Those kids will have access to PCR testing.
So I think parents should have confidence knowing that Ontario is a leader in Canada in terms of the investments we’ve made in schools. We believe kids need to be in class, and we have taken the steps necessary to make sure that those classrooms are safe.
What will happen if there are more outbreaks in schools? Will your government suspend in-class learning again?
MULRONEY There may be exceptional circumstances where a school would require closure. We’ve laid out the circumstances right now with a 30 per cent threshold. The decision to close schools is a very difficult one. And so, I can’t speak to what would occur if Omicron evolves. But I can tell you it’s a decision we take very seriously. And the reason we’ve made all these investments is to avoid future closures because we want our kids to remain in school.
There are still people who are choosing not to get vaccinated. What is your government’s response? Will you follow Quebec’s lead and introduce financial penalties or other such measures?
MULRONEY Well, I think you heard from both the premier and Dr. Moore, very clearly, that is not something Ontario is considering. Dr. Moore said he had not made that recommendation to the cabinet. We review the data and the evidence daily. We take measures that we think are the right ones for Ontario. We know that other provinces are doing things differently. And the federal government is monitoring that. We believe vaccines are the best line of defence against COVID-19. And I know the vast majority of Ontarians agree because over 90 per cent are vaccinated. So we hope they will continue to persuade their friends and neighbours who don’t see it that way to get vaccinated. It’s the best way to protect themselves, their vulnerable family members and their community.
So what is your government doing to encourage people who are hesitant to get vaccinated?
MULRONEY I think it’s clear, just based on data, that our ICUs are filled primarily with unvaccinated people. And so the best line of defence against this strain, Omicron, is to be vaccinated. So we are trying to get the message out as clearly and as widely as possible.
We have GO-VAXX buses, mobile vaccination clinics, that we make available as we get requests from different communities. We’ll be sending one to the Holland Marsh to vaccinate farmers. I got a request from Pefferlaw, and we’ve arranged that. We have mass vaccination clinics that are open. We dropped the age group for the booster to 18 plus, and you know the vaccination clinic at the Ice Place is open seven days a week. So, we are encouraging people to do it through our messaging. And making it as available as possible and as convenient as possible.