Stating that the Omicron wave is finally receding, the government of Ontario began gradually easing its most recent mandatory COVID-19 public health and workplace safety measures at the end of January as part of a shift towards what the Province describes as a more balanced, long-term approach to pandemic management. In fact, as of March 1, 2022, most COVID-19 public health and workplace safety measures had been lifted, including but not limited to capacity limits, proof of vaccination and physical distancing requirements in all settings. On March 9, 2022, the Ministry of Health announced its plans to lift all remaining public health and workplace safety measures in accordance with the following timeline.
Ontario’s Reopening Plan
As of March 1, 2022, the public health and workplace safety measures remaining in effect are those flowing from either Directives issued by the Chief Medical Officer of Health (the “CMOH”) to health care providers and health care entities specifically, or from letters of instruction issued by the CMOH requiring a COVID-19 vaccination policy in a number of high-risk settings, such as in the education sector, long-term care homes, retirement homes, community care and post-secondary institutions. However, relying on what the Province describes as improving and/or stable key public health indicators, a process is now underway to gradually revoke all CMOH Directives and letters of instruction by the end of April. In all cases, although specific Directives will be revoked, the Province’s plan is to replace them with operational guidance or recommendations from the CMOH or from the relevant ministry. In the long-term care sector, for example, there has been a shift from a provincial directive that requires homes to have a mandatory vaccination policy to a guidance-based approach that is intended, according to the Ministry of Long-Term Care, to continue to support homes with their employer-led policies and best practices.
It is important to note that as Directives are revoked, the Province has indicated that individual organizations will nonetheless retain the authority to keep requirements in place. Additionally, personal protective equipment and rapid antigen testing will continue to be provided to organizations in high-risk settings to help ensure the ongoing protection of health and safety.
March 14: Mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies end
As of March 14, 2022, the following changes came into effect in respect of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies:
- Directive 6, which mandated specific COVID-19 precautions and procedures for public hospitals, home care and community service providers, local health integration networks and ambulance services, was revoked,
- Letters of instruction to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, Ministry of Seniors and Accessibility, and Ministry of Education were revoked, and
- The Ministry of Long-Term Care’s Directive on immunization policies was revoked. In doing so, the Province made clear that “[l]ong-term care homes, as employers, retain their ability to mandate vaccination requirements for existing and new staff, students and volunteers, provided that they comply with all applicable law, such as the Human Rights Code. In addition, nothing prevents licensees from having proof of vaccination requirements for caregivers, visitors and support workers provided the licensee’s requirements are consistent with the Long-Term Care Homes Act, 2007, including the Residents’ Bill of Rights and section 5 of the Act (right to a safe and secure home), and comply with all applicable laws”.
March 21: Most masking mandates end
As of March 21, 2022, the following changes will come into effect:
- Mandatory masking requirements will be removed in most settings, including schools. Exceptions include public transit, hospitals, long-term care, retirement homes, health care clinics, specified residential and congregate care settings, homeless shelters, jails and congregate care and living settings, including homes for individuals with developmental disabilities,
- Other imposed measures in schools, including cohorting and daily on-site screening, will be lifted, and
- All other regulatory requirements for business will be removed, including those in respect of passive screening and safety plans.
Despite the above-described changes pertaining to schools, requirements related to enhanced cleaning, air quality and ventilation optimization, as well as absence reporting will remain in place.
March 28: Reopening Ontario Act expires
On March 28, 2022, the Reopening Ontario Act (the “ROA”) expires. Accordingly, a final 30-day extension of all remaining emergency orders under the ROA will take place at this time.
April 27: All remaining measures, directives and orders end
As of April 27, 2022, the following changes will come into effect:
- Mandatory masking requirements will be removed in all remaining settings,
- Any remaining emergency orders under the ROA will expire, including but not limited to work deployment orders for various sectors (e.g., long-term care homes, retirement homes, boards of health, and mental health and addictions agencies) and the order permitting the temporary exclusion of COVID-19 related payments from the application of the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019,
- Directive 1, which mandates specific COVID-19 precautions for health care providers and health care entities will be revoked,
- Directive 2.1, which addresses the issue of coordination of health system resources in hospitals and psychiatric facilities, will be revoked,
- Directive 3, which mandates specific COVID-19 precautions and procedures for long-term care homes, will be revoked,
- Directive 4, which mandates specific COVID-19 precautions for ambulance services and paramedics, will be revoked, and
- Directive 5, which mandates additional COVID-19 precautions and procedures for public hospitals and long-term care homes, will be revoked.
Changes to Isolation Requirements
At the same time, the Ministry of Health also announced changes to isolation requirements intended to better address the Omicron variant specifically. In particular, the following changes are being implemented with the stated intention of “minimiz[ing] the burden to workers and families, while ensuring that [the] highest risk settings continue to be protected”:
|Isolation requirements for non-household close contacts|
|Isolation requirements for household close contacts|
|Highest Risk Setting Definition|
|Highest Risk Setting Guidance|
|Recommendations for Cases/Symptomatic Individuals who are Immune Compromised|
In Our View
With Ontario’s high vaccination rates, as well as the arrival of antivirals, the Province has indicated it will be in a position to better manage the impact of the COVID-19 virus from this point forward. The changes detailed in this Focus Alert accordingly reflect a shift away from temporary emergency measures towards a more long-term approach to pandemic management.
As the Province relaxes their mandatory health and safety measures, employers continue to have obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, including the obligation to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. This means that employers should consider whether maintaining current or revised health and safety protocols above and beyond mandated requirements remain reasonable and appropriate, in light of their specific circumstances.