TORONTO — Tensions are mounting in Windsor-Essex, Ont., over the region’s continued pandemic lockdown, with a local mayor and some business owners saying public health officials haven’t done enough to halt the spread of COVID-19 on local farms.
Drew Dilkens said Tuesday that the high number of COVID-19 cases on farms in Essex County was holding back the entire region, and the local economy could not face another week of delay.
The mayor said public health officials have failed to ensure all migrant workers are tested for COVID-19, and called on farmers to step in so the region can join the rest of the province in Stage 2 of reopening.
“While the local health unit has thus far refused to test the full temporary foreign worker population, this next week presents an opportunity for our local agricultural community to step in where public health officials have failed,” Dilkens said in a statement.
Windsor-Essex is the only area of the province that remains in the first stage of reopening as it continues to grapple with outbreaks on local farms.
Hundreds of migrant workers in the region have tested positive for the virus and three have died.
A temporary centre set up in Leamington, Ont., to test the region’s 8,000 farm workers was shuttered after it tested roughly 10 per cent of the population — prompting hospital officials to call it an inefficient use of resources.
One local business owner said some people in the community believe the health unit should have mandated more aggressive testing migrant farm workers weeks ago.
Kim Spirou, who owns two local businesses that have been closed since mid-March, said there is growing resentment of what some feel is low participation in testing by farmers, even as outbreaks and case numbers go up.
Spirou said business owners have planned a protest outside the health unit Wednesday morning and some are even considering reopening on July 1, regardless of what stage the province is in.
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“There’s a growing number of us that are just going to take that risk, and we can’t afford not to,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Windsor-Essex Health Unit said 30 of its 32 new COVID-19 cases were agri-food workers.
The CEO of the agency defended the work it’s done on a number fronts, including testing of migrant workers since March.
“It is hard to hear the comments about our health unit,” Theresa Marentette said. “Even harder for our staff, who have worked so hard these past months for the health and well-being of our entire community.”
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford warned that if farmers in the Windsor-Essex region did not co-operate with the province’s plan to test all migrant workers he would take “extreme” action, though he gave no specifics.
A day later, Ford was more conciliatory, saying he had spoken with local politicians, farmers and his own officials about a new plan to help the region, adding he’ll provide details on Wednesday.
But the premier conceded that frustration in the region has been building and said he would not get his hair cut or go to a restaurant patio in solidarity with people in Windsor-Essex.
“I’ll do anything I can for to support the farmers, but there’s a lot of tension right now in Windsor-Essex,” he said. “I just need to cool the temperature there. We’re going to resolve this.”
NDP legislator Lisa Gretzky, who represents a riding in Windsor, said people in the region are angry about how the pandemic has been handled and want to know what metrics the province used to keep it in Stage 1.
“The premier spent this week blaming farmers, blaming Ottawa, blaming everyone but himself,” she said. “It’s time he took a long, hard look in the mirror, because other provinces have avoided the outbreaks we’re seeing.”
Approximately 20,000 migrant workers come to Ontario each year to work on farms and in greenhouses — many of them from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean. This year, they were required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.
The industry group Ontario’s Greenhouse Vegetable Growers said Tuesday it is disappointed the region has been held back, and pledged in a statement to redouble its efforts to have workers tested.
“To our friends and neighbours across the region, we recognize and acknowledge your frustrations in the delay in moving to stage two reopening,” said Joe Sbrocchi, the group’s general manager. “Our commitment to you is to do whatever it takes to move forward and deliver the results we need to open quickly and safely.”
© 2020 The Canadian Press