TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford pleaded with Ontario's "scared" migrant workers Wednesday to get tested for COVID-19, acknowledging that the current testing strategy has captured only a small slice of the migrant population in a region with several outbreaks.
Ford made the comments one day after a local hospital in Windsor-Essex — one of only three regions not allowed to enter Stage 2 of reopening this week — announced it was closing a centre designed to test the workers.
Only 724 workers — out of the region's 8,000 temporary foreign workers — have been tested since the centre was opened on June 9.
Ford said he would do "anything" to help test more workers and stop the spread of the virus on farms. Not working with the government, he said, isn't fair to the rest of the region.
"I'll send buses, I'll send mobile units," he said. "Please — to the farmers and the workers — I understand the reluctance. In some cases, they're worried (or) they're scared, the workers. There's no reason to be scared. Just please get tested."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government needs to provide the workers with more assurances that they will be protected should they test positive.
"It's not just about providing buses — there's a lot of risk to those workers," she said. "They need to know that their jobs will be protected. They need to know that they won't be deported for testing positive."
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Wednesday that a new "hybrid" strategy could use a stand-alone testing centre along with mobile teams moving from farm to farm, at least partially adopting a plan farmers have called for to help ease fears among workers.
Elliott said a mobile team by itself would take 84 days to test workers on every farm in the region, while a stand-alone centre could test all of the workers in 10 days.
"We can't force anyone to be tested, but we can make the circumstances for them to be tested — if they wish — easier," Elliott said.
Dozens of Windsor-Essex's seasonal farm workers have tested positive for the virus, nine farms are in active outbreak, and two workers have died because of COVID-19.
Erie Shores HealthCare has said it plans to shutter the testing facility for migrant workers in Leamington, Ont., on Thursday because it is not an efficient use of resources.
The centre could accommodate approximately 100 workers an hour and the hospital said its goal was to test all of the regions 8,000 workers in less than two weeks.
The hospital said Wednesday it had previously considered on-farm testing, but ruled it out because it would be "next to impossible" to attend to the roughly 176 agri-food farms in the region.
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said the outbreaks in the farming community, which lies outside of its municipal borders, are impacting the entire region's ability to move into the next stage of reopening.
"I have business owners and others in the city of Windsor who are saying, we've got to move forward, we've done everything you've asked us to do for 90 days," he said. "And they have, and we need to see progress."
Dilkens has called for mandatory testing of all migrant workers to help the province contain the spread of COVID-19.
But a spokeswoman for the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers said that group doesn't support mandatory testing.
"We need to be very aware that employees here under the temporary foreign worker program enjoy the same rights and freedoms of all Canadians," Justine Taylor said. "At this point in time, testing has not been made mandatory for any other groups of individuals."
Taylor said there is fear among migrant workers about the testing initiative, and having a single assessment centre where workers must be transported to runs counter to physical distancing guidelines.
"Some of them see getting on a bus to go to an assessment centre as quite a violation of what we've asked them to do over the last three months," she said.
Meanwhile, Ontario passed legislation Wednesday to temporarily ban commercial evictions.
The government said it will protect commercial tenants from being locked out or having their assets seized due to the negative impacts of COVID-19.
It's retroactive to May 1, which is a month earlier than the Progressive Conservatives had previously proposed. The New Democrats have been calling for the measures to be retroactive to mid-March.
The NDP also wants to see all businesses qualify, not just ones that would be covered under a federal-provincial rent relief program, but whose landlords won't apply.
Ontario reported 190 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, along with 12 more deaths.
More than 80 per cent of the new cases came from Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex — the only three regions that won't be in Stage 2 of the province's reopening plan as of Friday.
The new cases brought the provincial total to 32,744, including 2,550 deaths and 27,784 resolved cases — 353 more than the previous day. The number of people in hospital dropped to 383.
The government has also extended all emergency orders currently in force until June 30.
Late Wednesday, the government tabled a motion in the legislature to extend the province's state of emergency to July 15.
"The Premier is hopeful that this will be the final extension," a spokeswoman from his office said of the measure which will be debated next week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press