Windsor-Essex greenhouse shut down after COVID-19 outbreak

A migrant worker advocate and the national representative of one of the country's largest food and commercial workers unions have confirmed that Nature Fresh in Leamington, Ont. is the farm currently under strict orders by the region's health unit directing employees to isolate and stop working until further notice. 

Nature Fresh owner ordered to isolate employees, cease work 'until further direction'

Nature Fresh Farms is a facility in Leamington, Ont. (Jason Viau/CBC)

A migrant worker advocate and the national representative of one of the country's largest food and commercial workers unions have both confirmed that Nature Fresh in Leamington, Ont. is the facility currently under strict orders by the region's health unit directing employees to isolate and stop working until further notice. 

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer for the Justice for Migrant Workers advocacy group, and Santiago Escobar, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, both told CBC News that employees from Nature Fresh have informed them that the Leamington facility is the same facility that saw 191 confirmed COVID-19 cases over the weekend and that was effectively shut down on Wednesday by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU).

"My understanding is that [it's] Nature Fresh," Santiago said. 

In an email statement, a health unit spokesperson explained they don't "confirm the name or location of any workplace in COVID-19 outbreak unless there is a public health risk to the community."

Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, says he's heard from workers have reached out to let him know that Nature Fresh is the Essex County farm under a new Section 22 order. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

"This would include the farm that was issued the Section 22 order," said Mike Janisse. 

CBC News attempted to contact Peter Quiring, president and CEO of Nature Fresh, via phone call, but Quiring hung up after a reporter identified himself. Quiring didn't pick up when another reporter called. 

On Wednesday, Windsor-Essex medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed issued a Section 22 order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, effectively shutting down an Essex County farm that saw almost 200 workers test positive for COVID-19.

"The order requires the owner/operator of the farm to ensure the isolation of workers and prohibits them from working until further direction," said Ahmed, in a statement that didn't name Nature Fresh. 

Health unit spokesperson Eric Nadalin — who did not identify Nature Fresh by name — confirmed on Wednesday via email that the order applies to all workers at the facility. 

Santiago Escobar, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, says he understands that Nature Fresh is the Essex County Farm under the new order. (RADIO-CANADA / ISABELLE CORRIVEAU)

Despite the health unit's order, however, Escobar, with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, told CBC News that he was informed by Nature Fresh workers that "work [is] business as usual," implying that employees are continuing to work at the facility.

The health unit's order came approximately one week after Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a three-point plan to better support the province's agri-farm workers, which includes a provision allowing positive asymptomatic workers to continue working outdoors in isolation.

During Thursday's briefing, Marentette explained that the province's guidelines were issued based on farms associated with a limited number of asymptomatic workers.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, issued a new Section 22 order on Wednesday, July 1. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"In this particular farm, it's not a limited amount, it's a substantial amount," she said, adding that the order was put in place to protect workers and prevent the further spread of COVID-19. 

Marentette said the health unit is working with both the Essex County facility in question, as well as the provincial Health Ministry, to make sure that "everything is in place to isolate appropriately and allow the health unit to follow up with everyone."

Almost 700 agri-farm workers in Windsor-Essex have tested positive for COVID-19 to date, with two more agri-farm workers confirmed to be COVID-19-positive on Thursday. 

A total of three Ontario migrant workers have died following a COVID-19 diagnosis. 

Theresa Marentette, CEO and chief nursing officer for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, said during a Thursday, July 2 COVID-19 briefing that the new Section 22 order was issued because of the large number of workers who tested positive for the disease. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

In late May, 31-year-old worker Bonifacio Eugenio-Romero died in Windsor-Essex following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Approximately one week later, 24-year-old migrant worker Rogelio Muñoz Santos also died in Windsor-Essex after testing positive for COVID-19. 

A third worker from a farm near Simcoe died in late June following a COVID-19 diagnosis. 

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said she was surprised to learn of the health unit's new Section 22 order, saying she knows the work stoppage will "impact the industry and it will impact the food chain and it will impact any other farms coming forward for testing."

MacDonald said she didn't even know the facility was shut down and was "majorly disappointed" to hear about it from other sources. 

She said she warned the health unit eight weeks ago that they needed to get things under control and start testing on farms then, but now the situation is already so "big." 

"Somebody needs to take this bull by the horns, somebody with some power and authority," she said.

"[They need to take] into consideration all of the aspects, the workers that live in the bunkhouses, the workers that are asymptomatic, but it cant be taking weeks and weeks till that happens, this is going to be much bigger and harder to bring under control." 

WATCH | Ontario Premier Doug Ford on migrant workers:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says agri-farm sector migrant workers don't need to be afraid of Canadian authorities. He says the province is simply trying to help. 0:59

MacDonald said she spoke to Ford on Wednesday, saying that Ontario's premier expressed surprise to learn that asymptomatic workers are also being isolated. 

Speaking at a daily COVID-19 briefing on Thursday, Ford said he understands Ahmed's decision.

"But do you think that encourages other farmers to cooperate, when, all of a sudden, one of their friends get their farm shut down like that," Ford said. 

WATCH | Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Essex County farm shutdown:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he understands Dr. Wajid Ahmed's decision to issue a new Section 22 order. However, Ford suggested that the order might discourage other farm operators in the region from getting their workers tested. 2:04

"We're working on this. Around the clock, we're working on this. And hopefully today or tomorrow, we'll be able to sit down and have a conversation."

Ontario's premier emphasized that the province's goal is to help and protect agri-farm workers.

"That's my emphasis to the workers, nothing's going to happen," he said. "We're here — Ontario's here to help you, make sure you get better, make sure you get healthy."

Meanwhile, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams said at a news conference Thursday that the health unit acted appropriately as they weren't dealing with an outbreak at a large outdoor farm, but one at an indoor industrial workplace that had a number of symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. 

"It is a large industrial greenhouse operation which is different in my mind because it's a different work setting, it has closed space, people working in close quarters," Williams said, adding that the heating and cooling system make it worse as workers aren't outside in an open space. 

He added that hotels have been acquired by the farm-owner so individuals can be isolated and are providing other support services for workers to actually isolate. 

Williams also acknowledged that he has received a copy of a letter sent from about 700 physicians who have expressed concern about the provincial guideline that asymptomatic migrant workers can continue to work. 

Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said she warned the health unit eight weeks ago about testing workers on farms for COVID-19. (Jason Viau/CBC)

But Williams said that the asymptomatic protocol does not apply in the case of Nature Fresh because the facility is experiencing an outbreak with a number of symptomatic cases. The guideline, he clarified, only applies in the agri-farm sector when there are a few asymptomatic workers in a wide-spread outdoor facility. 

Potential to disrupt food supply chain

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) also weighed in on the news to CBC and said they trust in the actions of the local health unit to prioritize the health and safety of workers. 

"Certainly we were very concerned [when we heard about the shut down]," OGVG's science and government relations manager Justine Taylor said. 

"We will trust that [the health unit] has the best interests of the individuals in mind when they have taken such significant steps." 

While the effective shut down may benefit workers, it has the potential to significantly disrupt the farm's operations and the country's food supply chain, Taylor added.

"We expect that there will be impacts, it's obviously a living crop," she said. "190 employees displaced from a farm of any size is going to have a massive impact to that farm."

With files from Sameer Chhabra and Jason Viau