With daily COVID-19 case counts approaching 4,000 in Ontario, the Ontario provincial government announced on January 12, 2021, a state of emergency and a return to stricter lockdown measures that will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on January 14, 2021. The new restrictions will closely resemble the first-wave measures that were implemented in the spring of 2020, with some additional restrictions and enforcement measures.

The government declared a second state of emergency under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and issued amendments to regulations under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020. This state of emergency will last at least 28 days (through February 11, 2020) and, with few exceptions, applies province-wide. The government cited the alarming trend in the rate of infection and the threat of “an overwhelming of the health system” for the decision to declare a state of emergency. According to the Ontario Premier Doug Ford, “The latest modelling data shows that Ontario is in a crisis and, with the current trends, our hospital ICUs will be overwhelmed in a few short weeks with unthinkable consequences.

Some of the key measures impacting employers include the following:

  • A general stay-at-home order, lasting for 28 days, is in effect, requiring everyone to remain in their residences except for the following essential purposes:
    • grocery and pharmacy shopping;
    • accessing healthcare services;
    • exercise; or
    • essential work.
  • Workers who are nonessential to in-person operations are required to work from home.
    • This requirement replaces previous guidance that “strongly encouraged” such workers to work from home.
  • Nonessential retail stores must not open before 7:00 a.m. and must close by 8:00 p.m. This restriction is in addition to existing restrictions requiring nonessential retail stores to operate on a curbside pickup and delivery basis only.
    • This restriction does not apply to stores that primarily sell food; pharmacies; gas stations; convenience stores; and restaurants for takeout, drive-through, or delivery.
  • Nonessential construction is further restricted.
  • Mask use remains mandatory indoors at open businesses or organizations. Masks are also now being recommended outdoors where physical distancing is not possible.
  • The number of persons occupying discount retailers and big-box stores that sell groceries must not exceed 25 percent capacity of the particular room.
  • Outdoor gatherings are restricted to five people, subject to limited exceptions, similar to the restrictions that were in place in spring 2020.
  • School closures (online-only learning) in Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton, and Windsor-Essex will remain in effect until at least February 10, 2021, while schools in other regions will remain closed until at least January 25, 2021.

The government promised to enhance enforcement measures. This means increasing the powers of bylaw officers, police, provincial offenses officers, and labour inspection officers to issue tickets to actors breaching the emergency measure orders. In addition, all enforcement officers will have the authority to temporarily close a premises and disperse individuals gathering indoors and outdoors. The government stressed that it would be conducting surprise inspections at big-box stores, to ensure compliance with restrictions such as limits on capacity.

Key Takeaways for Employers

This order and other new and existing public health restrictions are specifically aimed at limiting people’s mobility and reducing the number of daily contacts that individuals have with those outside their households. The workplace safety measures require employers that ensure employees who can work remotely do so. In addition, employers that remain may see an increase in surprise inspections from the Ministry of Labour and other provincial authorities.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.

Please note this article was published before the relevant amendments to the regulations under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020 were enacted, and is based on the available guidance as of January 12, 2021.