Omicron Throws a Wrench in Ontario Government’s Reopening Plans

Focus readers will recall that it was just over two months ago that the Ontario government announced its tentative long-term reopening plans. Since that time, however, the COVID-19 landscape has changed enormously within the province. In particular, the new Omicron variant, though seemingly much less likely to cause a severe case of COVID-19 than previous variants, has been found to be significantly more transmissible, resulting in skyrocketing case numbers.

In an effort to slow transmission and preserve hospital capacity within a healthcare system that is already struggling with increased rates of staff absenteeism due to exposure to COVID-19 or for other reasons, on January 3, 2022, the Ontario government announced that the province will temporarily be moving to a modified Step 2 of the Roadmap to Reopen.

What does this mean in terms of public health and workplace safety restrictions?

Effective January 5, 2022 at 12:01 a.m., amended rules for areas at Step 2 will temporarily apply to businesses and organizations throughout the province of Ontario, including the following:

  • Businesses and organizations are required to ensure that all employees work remotely unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site.
  • Indoor meeting and event spaces are closed with limited exceptions, while outdoor spaces may remain open with restrictions.
  • Retail settings, including shopping malls, are permitted to operate at 50% capacity with restrictions, though food courts are required to close.
  • Indoor dining at restaurants, bars, and other food and drink establishments is closed, while outdoor dining with restrictions, takeout, drive through and delivery continue to be permitted.
  • Indoor concert venues, theatres, and cinemas are closed, while rehearsals and recorded performances continue to be permitted with restrictions.
  • Indoor museums, galleries, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions, amusement parks, waterparks, tour and guide services, fairs, rural exhibitions, and festivals are closed, while similar outdoor drive-in and drive-through spaces may remain open with restrictions.
  • Indoor sports and recreational facilities, including gyms, are closed, with the exception of certain athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as select professional and elite amateur sports leagues. Outdoor facilities are permitted to remain open with restrictions and with spectator capacity, where applicable, limited to 50%.
  • Indoor horse racing tracks, car racing tracks and other similar venues are closed. Boat tours are permitted at 50% capacity.
  • Most personal care services are permitted to operate at 50% capacity with restrictions, though saunas, steam rooms, and oxygen bars are required to close.
  • Public libraries are permitted to operate at 50% capacity.

It is important to also note the following additional rules and restrictions:

  • Social gathering limits are reduced to five (5) people indoors and ten (10) people outdoors.
  • Capacity limits for indoor organized public events are reduced to five (5) people. Outdoor establishments are permitted to remain open with restrictions and with capacity, where applicable, limited to 50%.
  • Capacity limits for indoor weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites and ceremonies are reduced to 50%.
  • The sale of alcohol is restricted after 10:00 p.m., as is the consumption of alcohol on-premises in businesses or settings after 11:00 p.m. However, delivery, takeout, grocery/convenience stores, and other liquor stores are exempt from these restrictions.

The aforementioned public health and workplace safety restrictions will remain in effect for at least 21 days, to January 26, 2022. That being said, they could potentially be extended beyond that date depending on public health trends and healthcare system indicators in the coming weeks.

What about schools?

Along with the public health and workplace safety restrictions mandated by the modified Step 2 of the Roadmap to Reopen, all publicly funded and private schools in Ontario will be moving to a remote learning model following the holiday break. Remote learning will remain in effect until at least January 17, 2022, though further extension remains a possibility, subject to public health trends and operational considerations.

Despite the foregoing, school buildings will continue to be permitted to open for child care operations (including emergency child care), or to the extent necessary to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely or for staff who are unable to provide proper instruction or support for pupils from their home.

Are there any financial supports available to businesses impacted by these new restrictions?

Besides the federal supports that remain available to the businesses and organizations most significantly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, the Ontario government has indicated that it intends to expand the recently announced Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program. Briefly, through this program, eligible businesses that are required to close or reduce capacity will receive rebate payments for a portion of the property tax and energy costs incurred while subject to those restrictions. While businesses required to reduce capacity to 50% will receive a rebate equivalent to 50% of their costs, businesses required to close for indoor activities entirely will now also receive a rebate equivalent to 100% of their costs. Although the specific details of the program have yet to be released, a full list of eligible businesses and other important information will be made available through a program guide to be published in mid-January.

Additionally, the Ontario Government has announced that, effective January 1, 2022, it will provide up to $7.5 billion for a six-month interest- and penalty-free period for Ontario businesses to make payments for most provincially administered taxes. The hope is that this initiative will provide immediate support to affected businesses by temporarily improving their cash flows.

In Our View

Taking several steps back in respect of the province’s long-term reopening plans will undoubtedly be incredibly frustrating for affected businesses and organizations. At the same time, the preservation of the healthcare system’s capacity in the face of the new Omicron variant remains vital for those who will require medical care due to COVID-19 or other reasons.

Importantly, besides the public health and workplace safety restrictions discussed herein, the Ontario government is also taking steps within the healthcare system itself to try to preserve its capacity. Specifically, on January 5, 2022, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, will reinstate Directive 2 for hospitals and regulated health professionals, requiring a temporary pause to all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures. It remains unclear how long this directive might remain in effect, or if any further changes to the healthcare system may be required as the Ontario government continues to navigate the effects of Omicron.

For more information on your rights and obligations as an employer dealing with COVID-19 and related issues, please contact Jennifer Birrell at 613-940-2740.

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