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Ontario delays release of full budget; province has seen 177 cases of COVID [UPDATED]

Finance Minister Rod Phillips will instead deliver a scaled-back forecast on March 25

March 16, 2020  The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is set to make an announcement March 16. PHOTO: Doug Ford/Bruce Reeve via Flickr

TORONTO — Ontario is delaying the release of its full budget as the province prepares to weather economic challenges the COVID-19 pandemic will bring, the finance minister announced March 16.

Rod Phillips will instead deliver a scaled-back forecast on March 25, with a one-year economic outlook that will detail what fiscal resources will be available in the coming year for sectors such as health care and municipalities.

“It’s important that I introduce a financial plan for the province that is as current as possible given the dynamic situation,” he said.

Phillips said the full budget would be released as late as the fall.

Ontario reported 32 new COVID-19 cases March 16, bringing the total in the province to 177.

The new cases are across the province, including in Hamilton, Ottawa and Sudbury, but the majority are in the Greater Toronto Area.

New patients are all self-isolating, but other information — including their ages and how they became infected — is sparse.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, chalked that up to new lab testing sites that have opened up to accommodate increased demand being unable so far to quickly enter that supplementary information.

But, he said, evidence of community spread is not yet there.

“So far, ones we’ve seen when we do their complete investigation they usually have some contact with a case in the past (or have a travel history),” Williams said. “It takes some time to do that full investigation.”

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is not yet at the point of ordering the closure of bars and restaurants.

“If we have to do that…we will do that, but we don’t believe we’re at that stage yet,” she said. “But this is a rapidly changing situation.”

Premier Doug Ford said there are some “rough waters ahead,” but the government is looking out for Ontario workers and families.

“We’re prepared to do whatever it takes and we’re taking every step possible to slow the spread of this virus,” Ford said.

The province over the weekend announced it is drafting legislation to ban employers from requiring sick notes for those in self-isolation or quarantine. It will also ensure protected leave for workers who have to take unpaid leave to isolate themselves or care for others, such as children not in school.


Related: Ontario introduces job protection measures for COVID-19


Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said it will be retroactive to Jan. 25 and will stay in place “until this disease is defeated.”

Meanwhile, following complaints of long wait times for Telehealth Ontario services, the province is adding more nurses to the system.

“By immediately expanding Telehealth’s resources, we can significantly reduce the time it takes for Ontarians to receive the information they need to stay safe and healthy,” Elliott said in a statement.

About 130 more nurses have been deployed for symptom assessment and referrals. Telehealth is also working to add more intake staff so that wait times are reduced for people to make initial contact with a representative.

The province is also working with the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario to expand supports using its 44,000 registered nurse members, Elliott said.

Williams said unless people have severe symptoms or a medical emergency, they should stay at home while waiting for a Telehealth response.

“We understand that people are anxious to get the advice about next steps as soon as possible, which is why the capacity of Telehealth is being enhanced,” he said in a statement.

Elliott also announced that youth justice facilities have been told to suspend all personal visits and volunteer activities. All “non-essential” leaves for helping youth in custody reintegrate into the community are being restricted.

Elliott and Social Services Minister Todd Smith said video-calling can still be used for family to stay in touch with youth in those facilities.

Lawyers will still be able to visit their clients but should consider using teleconferencing instead, the ministers said.