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Provincial Government Update and Guidelines for Employers to Follow as Workplaces Reopen

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On May 14, 2020, the Ontario government announced that the following services and activities will be permitted to open effective May 16, 2020, as part of the first stage of its reopening framework:

  • Golf courses, with clubhouses open only for washrooms, and restaurants open only for take-out;
  • Marinas, boat clubs and public boat launches (for recreational use);
  • Private parks and campgrounds (to enable preparation for the season and to allow access for trailers and recreational vehicles whose owners have a full season contract); and
  • Businesses that board animals, such as stables, to allow boarders to visit, care for or ride their animal.

Commencing May 19, 2020, the following businesses are permitted to open:

  • Retail services that are not in shopping malls and have separate street-front entrances with measures in place that can enable physical distancing, such as limiting the number of customers in the store at any one time and booking appointments beforehand or on the spot;
  • Seasonal businesses and recreational activities for individual or single competitors, including training and sport competitions conducted by a recognized national or provincial sport organization. This includes indoor and outdoor non-team sport competitions that can be played while maintaining physical distancing and without spectators, such as tennis, track and field and horse racing;
  • Animal services, specifically pet care services, such as grooming and training, and regular veterinary appointments;
  • Indoor and outdoor household services that can follow public health guidelines, such as housekeepers, cooks, cleaning and maintenance;
  • Construction (no more essential workplace limits); and
  • Certain health and medical services, such as in-person counselling; in-person services, in addition to virtual services, delivered by health professionals; and scheduled surgeries.

Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced that garden centres, nurseries, and hardware stores and safety supply stores were allowed to reopen. In addition, retail stores with a street entrance were allowed to reopen for curbside pickup.

Framework for Reopening Ontario

The Ontario government released A Framework for Reopening our Province on April 27, 2020, which outlined the government’s plan to reopen businesses, services and public spaces gradually based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. There were three stages highlighted in the framework. The above announcements allowing certain businesses to reopen are part of the first stage.

The framework indicates that each stage will last approximately 2 to 4 weeks to allow for close monitoring of the impact or potential spread of the virus. After each stage, the Chief Medical Officer of Health will advise the government whether to maintain the status quo, progress to the next stage or tighten measures in response to a further outbreak. Although the government is taking these measures to stimulate the economy, they still expect the public to remain vigilant by self-isolating when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, maintaining social distancing and regular hand washing. The government is also encouraging telework arrangements to continue wherever possible.

The government also released sector specific health and safety guidelines for businesses to follow to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The comprehensive guidelines can be found here.

While many business owners welcome the opportunity to reopen their workplace, they will not be able to operate as they did several months ago. It will not be “business as usual”.  Considerable thought and planning must be undertaken before workplaces can reopen safely.

Tips for Maintaining a Safe Workplace

When reopening a workplace, employers must keep in mind that they have an obligation to keep their workers and others safe under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “OHSA”). If workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and wish to return to work, they should consult with their local public health office to receive proper guidance. If workers refuse to return to work and/or exercise their right to refuse to unsafe work under the OHSA, employers need to understand the appropriate process and legal rights.

Prudent employers should consider the availability of the following measures when reopening their workplaces in order to comply with current public health standards:

  • Limit the number of employees and others (i.e. customers/clients/suppliers) in the workplace;
  • Stagger or alternate the days that workers are allowed in the workplace;
  • Allow flexible work hours where start/finish times, breaks and lunches are staggered;
  • Use video conferencing or telephone meetings rather than face-to-face client meetings;
  • Reconfigure workspaces and floor plans to maximize physical distancing;
  • Install physical barriers such as plexi-glass dividers between workers or between workers and customers;
  • Install signage to mark 2 metre spacing to ensure that physical distancing is maintained;
  • Provide access to soap and water for routine handwashing. Place alcohol-based hand sanitizers at workstations or several locations throughout the workplace and ensure that they are refilled regularly;
  • Install signs in the workplace to remind workers about the symptoms of COVID-19;
  • Schedule frequent and routine enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces in the workplace that have hand contact such as door handles, faucets, light switches, elevator buttons, toilet handles, keyboards and other shared office equipment;
  • Remove items from common areas that are often shared and cannot be sanitized easily (e.g. magazines or newspapers); and
  • Eliminate the need for workers to share equipment or tools (such as computer equipment or pens) if possible;
  • Limit non-essential business travel; and
  • Ensure that appropriate personal protective equipment (“PPE”), such as face masks, gloves and eye protection, is available when physical distancing cannot be maintained. Training may be necessary to inform workers on how to properly put on and take off PPE, as well as proper maintenance and disposal. As PPE will be in very high demand, the government has launched a website to provide businesses with information on PPE suppliers.

In addition to the foregoing, employers should ensure that they have reviewed and updated their  workplace policies and procedures  to address new challenges they may face once they reopen during these uncertain times. Employers should also consult with experienced legal counsel to review and update COVID-19 protocols and applicable workplace policies and procedures, such as business continuity plans, workplace risk assessments, health questionnaires, privacy policies and accommodation policies.

Employers should anticipate that some employees may refuse to come back to work or perform certain work due to personal fears or concerns, notwithstanding the employer’s observance of government guidance on how to make a return to work safe. Diligent employers should be prepared to understand how best to respond to and address such situations to avoid triggering potential legal liability.

The best thing about P.V. is that they use the right lawyer for the right service, both in terms of type of service and size of file.
Vince Siciliano, BDO Canada Limited