Cabinet minister calls out Niagara businesses over lax COVID plans
A three-day inspection blitz at Niagara businesses last week found barely half were in compliance with Ontario’s COVID-19 public safety laws.
“Frankly, that’s not good enough,” said Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, in an interview Friday.
“We need all employers and workers to continue stepping up and remaining vigilant against COVID-19.”
That campaign, which involved 22 provincial offences officers, is separate from one carried out earlier by Niagara Region staff that also led to numerous fines and warnings.
McNaughton’s criticism came shortly before it was announced late Friday afternoon that Niagara will be moved out of orange and into the more restrictive red zone as of Monday due to rising COVID case counts.
In a three-day campaign that started Monday, the provincial offences officers conducted what the ministry called an “education-focused” business safety blitz across Niagara.
Of the 267 workplaces visited, only 54 per cent were in compliance with the Reopening Ontario Act, which provides for safety measures during the pandemic.
By comparison, a similar campaign in Hamilton earlier this month found 73 per cent compliance. Kingston businesses were 71 per cent in compliance and Ottawa’s were 69 per cent.
“My message to all businesses is you’ve got to continue stepping up,” said McNaughton. “I understand these are very, very difficult times.
“But I’m calling them all out, because they need to do better.”
Of the violations found, he said “the most serious one is that a lot of businesses still are not doing the pre-screening of workers coming into the place of business. Taking their temperature checks, for example, filling out a questionnaire.”
Inspectors were also checking to ensure business could offer safe social distancing, adequate personal protective equipment for staff and had proper safety plans prepared.
Of the 267 visits, 98 were at restaurants where 55 were found in violation. Another 153 visits were at retail outlets, with 65 contraventions found.
A spokesman in McNaughton’s ministry said there was no information available yet on how many fines or warnings were issued.
While Niagara was bumped to the red zone, Hamilton was put into grey, or lockdown level.
McNaughton said there’s no reason for businesses to be non-compliant with public health-related rules nine months into the pandemic.
“I want businesses to know we put up online, free of charge for them, at Ontario.ca/covidsafety more than 200 resources they can use — posters, tip sheets that they can use to implement a COVID-19 health and safety plan.”
The visits by provincial officers followed similar inspections carried out earlier by Niagara Region bylaw enforcement officers.
Over two months ending in late November, they checked 251 businesses and handed out 32 provincial offences fines of $750 each.
As well, they issued three provincial offences summonses that carry maximum penalties starting at $100,000 on conviction, delivered 48 formal warnings and held 178 “educational conversations,” according to a Niagara Region release.
McNaughton said the point of the inspections is not to wield “a big stick” but to educate owners and managers.
“It’s to help keep them open, number one. And to protect the health and safety of workers,” he said.
“Everyone has to do more today than we’ve ever done … the numbers are going in the wrong direction and we’re seeing community spread in small towns that we haven’t seen before.”