Ford mulls legislature shutdown this week

By Colin Perkel

TORONTO – Calls for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to undo new wide-ranging COVID-19 restrictions on outdoor recreational activities came Sunday, amid pledges of help from the federal government.

A political battle also appeared to be brewing amid word the province had proposed to shut the legislature down as early as Wednesday.

The promise of federal aid came from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who made the promise two days after Ford’s Progressive Conservatives issued a nationwide appeal for support for Ontario’s overtaxed health-care system.

Trudeau said on Sunday that Ottawa was stepping up.

“We are mobilizing federal health-care workers from across government departments to deploy to the front lines in Ontario, specifically to the (Toronto area) where the situation is most critical,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister also said Ottawa would send more COVID-19 tests to Ontario and would cover the costs if other provinces send help.

Prince Edward Island on the weekend became the latest province to say it would like to help but noted it, too, is fighting the pandemic at home.

Meanwhile, provincial opposition parties accused Ford of trying to hide from the anger caused by restrictions experts said were ineffective at curbing the pandemic spread, as well as his unwillingness to legislate paid sick days for workers.

Those accusations stemmed from word that the government was planning to shut down the legislature as early as Wednesday.

Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said her New Democrats would not agree to any legislature shutdown until the Progressive Conservative government had reversed what she described as its “dangerous police-state orders” and replaced them with public health measures.

“We are not prepared to help Doug Ford go home, leaving a police state in place while he allows COVID-19 to run rampant, overrun hospitals, and steal the lives of Ontarians who would otherwise make it through this,” Horwath said in a statement.

In response, government House leader Paul Calandra said the proposed closure was to protect legislature support staff from COVID-19, something he said could not be accomplished by a virtual sitting.

“The government presented options to adjourn the legislature to keep those who support elected officials safe,” Calandra said in a statement. “As is typical, the NDP have used this as an opportunity to score the cheapest of political points in the midst of a pandemic.”

The legislature is currently scheduled to sit until June. Calandra said only it would be in session this week.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Ford of “hiding from the outrage he caused with his reckless actions and anti-science agenda.”

The simmering political tensions and questions about the point of restrictions shuttering most outdoor recreational spaces came as the province again set hospital admission records and intensive care units struggled to save a growing number of patients.

Health authorities reported 741 people in intensive care with COVID-19, with more than 500 needing mechanical help to breathe. In all, 2,107 infected patients were in hospital.

The province also logged 4,250 new infections on Sunday, along with 18 new virus-related deaths.

Ford has already walked back some broader police powers enacted Friday as part of a suite of new measures meant to curb the surging third wave. He also said playgrounds could stay open, reversing an announcement made the same day.

But other outdoor recreational areas, such as soccer fields, picnic tables and golf courses, are still ordered to remain closed.

Critics of the measures seized on the lack of scientific justification to denounce the emergency measures.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert with the University Health Network, called the outdoor restrictions misguided and said people should be encouraged to be outside.

“We know there’s very little risk of catching COVID-19 in outdoor settings,” Bogoch said. “We may as well focus on areas where the virus is actually being transmitted, which is indoor venues, predominantly among essential workers that don’t have the luxury of locking down or staying at home.”

One fast-growing online petition that called on Ford to reopen golf courses and allow pickleball blew through its 10,000-signature target Sunday.

It’s a question of health, both physical and mental, said Mark Kalbfleisch, of Oshawa, Ont., who started the petition.

“The government proved by opening golf last year, and pickle ball and rowing and things you can do to get outside, that it can be done safely,” Kalbfleisch, himself an avid golfer, said in an interview. “I don’t recall any cases of COVID being transmitted through golf.”

Amid a barrage of criticism and after police said they would not use their new powers to stop drivers or pedestrians at random and ask why they weren’t at home, Ford changed the rules again on Saturday. Officers must now have grounds to suspect a violation of stay-at-home orders before being able to demand information.

One lawyer, however, said the change was not much of an improvement because police officers could broaden their inquiries of people suspected of a breach.

“Based on responses to these questions, the police may take the position that they now have grounds to conduct a further investigation into that individual,” Nader Hasan said Sunday. “This power is ripe for abuse, pretext searches, and racial profiling.”