Ford Roundup: Stage 3, long-term care and back to school

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged Torontonians and other residents entering Stage 3 on Friday to remain vigilant in following public health guidelines, as Canada's biggest city will enter the government's final phase of economic reopening in two days. 

"We can't take our eye off the ball for a second, it will come back and bite us in the backside — this second wave, like we've never seen before," Ford said Wednesday, after the government announced that Toronto, along with Peel Region will go into Stage 3. 

It means indoor dining can resume, as can going to fitness centres and gyms, theatres and children can go back on playground equipment. 

"Everyone's on the same page, anyone who plays ignorance on this, it's just not fair to the rest of the people, because they know the rules, they know the guidelines," he said, regarding the use of masks, physical distancing and hand-washing. 

As it has throughout the decade, Windsor-Essex will remain in Stage 2 for the time being, as outbreaks of migrant workers on farms continues to stifle progress. 

The announcement came as the province reported just 76 new cases of COVID-19, marking the first time Ontario has seen a below-100 number in four months. 

But Ford emphasized that until a vaccine is widely available, the virus is here to stay. 

Along with cases, overall hospitalizations, those in intensive care and on ventilators all dropped. 

Toronto's Chief Medical Officer of Health said Wednesday that the city is indeed ready to move on, as the city also enacted new bylaws, such as requiring masks or face coverings in common areas in apartments and condominiums. 

"We need to stay focused to prevent new cases or a spike in activity as much as we can," Dr. Eileen de Villa said. 

Stage 3 also means indoor gatherings can increase to no more than 50 people, while outdoor ones can go up to 100. 

LONG-TERM CARE 

Ford also announced that Frank Marrocco, an associate chief justice with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, would chair the long-awaited independent commission into Ontario's long-term care sector. 

Marrocco was the lead counsel in the Walkerton inquiry, and will be joined by Angela Coke, a former senior executive with the Ontario Public Service, and Dr. Jack Kitts, the former president and CEO of the Ottawa Hospital.

The commission is scheduled to complete its report by April 30, after which it will be made public, with Ford repeating he will appear as a witness if requested. 

But the premier faced several questions about the scope of the commission, such since the officers won't be making findings of criminal or civil responsibility, how can people - such as LTC operators - be held accountable. 

Ford said fixing long-term care is not bound to the commission alone. 

"We have the chief corner looking into it, we have the ombudsman looking into it, we have the auditor general looking into it," he said. "Possibly, the police— the OPP. And if they find there's been neglect then they should be charged, it's as simple as that."

When asked if recommendations in the commission would be binding, Ford said he'll leave it up to what they find. 

"If they do put recommendations, we'll take them up on it. And on top of that, we aren't just going to sit back, we're going to continue improving the system as we have been," he said. 

NDP Attorney-General critic, Gurratan Singh said the commission doesn't go far enough, once again calling for a public inquiry. 

"An inquiry will have far more impact than this backroom non-binding commission, it'll have a full scope under the Public Inquiries Act, versus a limited commission," he said. "This commission allows for the commission to call on individuals but doesn't have that ability for the public interaction, which will allow for more information and greater accountability with this crisis."

EDUCATION 

The ministry of education also confirmed that minister Stephen Lecce will announce the government's back to school plan Thursday. 

Lecce said last week that the announcement would include "additional supports." 

Before Ford's news conference, experts from the Sick Kids Foundation released updated recommendations around back to school. 

They included - despite disagreement among experts - not recommending masks for elementary students, while middle and high school students should when physical distancing is not possible. 

They also recommended staggered lunch and no assemblies, along with one metre distances between elementary and middle school students' desks and two metres of high schoolers. 

When asked about the masks, Ford said he wouldn't disagree against what Sick Kids had to say. 

"I could never argue against medical professionals, especially at SickKids, or any medical professional," Ford said. "Is everyone nervous? Are parents? Sure they're nervous, I'm nervous, everyone's nervous when you're dealing with kids."

"There's gonna be 2 million kids going back to class. And 130,000, 140,000 teachers, that's concerning," he added. "But we'll get through it, we'll work together, we work collaboratively with everyone.