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About half of region's businesses following COVID rules, says ministry

'We really need to ensure those ones that aren’t pulling up their socks do even more,' says minister; Three Severn businesses among those ticketed
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More than two dozen Simcoe County and Muskoka stores received fines for non-compliance with COVID-19 control measures this weekend during an inspection blitz that has shown a 50 per cent compliance rate by businesses in the region, according to the province.

Monte McNaughton, minister of labour, training and skills development in Ontario, urged businesses in Simcoe County and Muskoka to do better. 

“We need all businesses to do better,” he said. “We visited over 370 businesses in the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit region, and we saw 50 per cent of those businesses were in compliance, so clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement.” 

Inspectors from several enforcement agencies participated in the campaign from Feb. 5 to 8, which targeted big-box stores. The campaign was announced by the province as part of ongoing campaigns to enforce the Reopening Ontario Act’s rules for businesses operating during the pandemic. 

The region’s medical officer of health hadn’t seen a full report from the ministry yet, but the health unit’s own inspectors visited 170 locations in the region and issued 14 tickets, including five in Barrie. Those inspections are in addition to the ones completed by provincial officers.

“We’ve seen plenty of transmission in work environments in the first and second wave, therefore, non-compliance is an issue,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. 

The inspection campaign included 33 Ministry of Labour enforcement officers, as well as 13 bylaw enforcement officers, 11 health unit inspectors, and six police officials from within the region. 

Dr. Gardner said the health unit’s enforcement officers noted the most common infractions were a lack of a COVID-19 safety plan, lack of sufficient employee screening, a lack of signage indicating capacity limits, and failings regarding cleaning and disinfection. 

“Clearly, it was necessary,” said Gardner. “The timing was very good in that it helped us deal with the emergence and spread and containment of the UK variant.”

According to the Ministry of Labour, Training, and Skills Development, ministry enforcement officers visited 372 businesses in Simcoe County and Muskoka and issued 18 tickets. 

They observed the most common violations were inadequate screening, lack of safety plans, and capacity limits. 

Fines issued by the health unit include five Barrie locations: Dollar Tree on Mapleview Drive West, Jenka’s on Barrieview Drive, Joe’s No Frills (Wellington Street West) Zehrs on Cundles Road, and Canadian Tire on Bayfield Street. All five stores received $1,000 fines.

Tickets were issued by the health unit to five Muskoka stores and three Severn Township stores with fines ranging from $750 to $1,000. They include Farmer's Daughter in Huntsville, Muskoka Grocery in Severn, Coldwater Foodland in Severn, Country Style/Esso in Severn, Jamieson's General Store in Huntsville, Mary's Lakeside Grill in Huntsville, Nick's Family Restaurant in Bracebridge, and Terry's Independent Grocer in Gravenhurst. 

Other multi-ministry safety campaigns that took place in January 2021 found a 60 per cent compliance rate, according to Kalem McSween, spokesperson for the ministry of labour. Upon return to the same areas two weeks later, the ministry found a 15 per cent increase in compliance for big box stores and a 13 per cent increase in compliance in other retail sectors. 

“We know the tougher enforcement measures are working,” said McNaughton. “The majority of businesses are doing everything possible to prevent COVID-19 from coming into the workplace. We really need to ensure those ones that aren’t pulling up their socks do even more.” 

The minister suggested there is enough free information online between the province’s website and local health unit websites for “every type of business in Ontario,” to know what they should be doing to comply with the Reopening Ontario Act. 

“There’s never been a more important time for businesses owners, supervisors, managers, workers to step up than during COVID-19,” said McNaughton. 

He said provincial enforcement officers will be back in Simcoe Muskoka to continue to check in on area businesses. 

“There are hundreds of inspectors on the ground every single day across the province,” he said.