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Ontario to allow some businesses to reopen, long-term care outbreaks continue to climb

Ontario will allow some businesses to reopen starting on Monday, provided they comply with strict public health measures to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. The news comes as the province reported eight new outbreaks at long-term care homes.

Ontario reports 421 new confirmed cases Friday, for a provincial total of 16,608

A customer shops at a gardening centre in Calgary, Alta. in April. Ontario will permit similar businesses to open on Monday under strict new safety guidelines. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Ontario will allow some businesses to reopen starting on Monday, provided they comply with strict public health measures to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19.

The list of businesses permitted to open includes seasonal operations such as gardening centres and car washes, in addition to some essential construction projects.

"It is clear that right now there are certain business and workplaces that can operate safely," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at his Friday news conference.

"Today is a glimmer of hope and it couldn't come soon enough."

You can find the full list of businesses and further details about the plan at the link below.

Ford has pledged to cautiously restart the economy under guidance from provincial health officials, who have said a consistent, multi-week decline in new cases is needed before that process can begin.

Deaths, outbreaks on the rise in long-term care

Friday's reopening announcement comes on the same day that a prominent health care advocacy group launched a call for improved conditions at the province's long-term care and retirement homes.

The Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) says the Ford government must improve access to COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and create safer working conditions at the facilities.

On Friday, Ontario reported that 541 long-term care residents have now died of COVID-19, an increase of 11 since Thursday. The province is also tracking outbreaks at eight additional long-term care homes, bringing the provincial total to 198.

The province also reported 421 new cases of the illness Friday morning, bringing the total to 16,608.

Data collected by CBC News from local public health agencies show at least 1,196 deaths in the province, an increase of 19 since Thursday.

While Ford and provincial public health officials have said the outbreak appears to be slowing among the general public, the situation in long-term care homes remains significantly more serious.

The OHC hopes that Friday's day of action will put more pressure on the government to protect vulnerable residents and workers at those facilities.

"While measures that have been announced by the provincial government are welcome and sincerely appreciated, still there remains a dangerous disconnect between what the premier has said he is going to do and the actual policy measures undertaken by his government," said OHC in a news release.

It goes on to say Ontario's long-term care system is dealing with "critical" staffing shortages, particularly among personal support workers.

"Homes do not have enough staff to operate safely," the OHC said.

The organization says its information is based on dozens of phone calls, correspondence and emails with residents and their families. 

Ontario has introduced stricter screening protocols and increased testing at some long-term care homes during the pandemic.

The province also recently approved a $4 per hour wage increase for front-line workers and called in the military to assist at five long-term care facilities struggling with large outbreaks.

There have now been 198 COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care homes, including one at Laurier Manor in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"We are taking action and we are going to resolve this situation," said health minister Christine Elliott, citing some of those steps.

She added that Ontario plans to test all long-term care residents for COVID-19 within the next two weeks.

Elliott also acknowledged concerns around staffing shortages and said the province is "making sure" there will be enough staff to assist residents during the crisis.

Commercial tenants worried about making rent

As Ontario enters its third month of the crisis, there are renewed concerns that some businesses will not be able to pay their rent.

While Ottawa announced a new federal rent relief program in April called the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA), funds from the program have not arrived in time for May rent payments, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has warned.

The organization is calling on federal and provincial leaders to supplement the program with a two-week moratorium on commercial evictions starting May 1.

"It is good that help is on the way, but for an increasingly large number of small businesses the time they are being asked to wait will result in permanent closure," said OCC president and CEO Rocco Rossi in a statement.

"The pause will, simply put, give our small businesses the time they need to catch their collective breath."

Finance minister Rod Phillips said funds from the federal government are expected to start flowing by the end of next week, which will provide needed relief for businesses.

"We're confident in the program," Phillips said. "That will relieve a lot of concerns."

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