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Ontario health unit partially closes 2 Amazon fulfilment centres to control COVID-19 outbreaks

Peel Public Health announced on Saturday that it has partially closed two Amazon fulfilment centres to control COVID-19 outbreaks in those workplaces.

The centres are located in Brampton, Ont., at 8050 Heritage Rd., and in Bolton, Ont., at 12724 Coleraine Dr. The businesses were required to close at midnight on Friday. Peel Region is located northwest of Toronto.

Peel Public Health said the businesses and employees have been notified.

The public health unit said the centres have been closed under Section 22 of Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act. On its website, it said a partial closure may mean the mass dismissal of a shift or work area.

Peel Public Health added that its closures would apply to businesses that have had five or more COVID-19 cases that were acquired in the workplace over a span of two weeks.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s medical officer of health, said on Saturday that the public health unit identified 11 workplaces in total on Friday for “priority review” to stop the spread of the virus. The closures are an attempt to protect the community, he said.

Of the 11, the public health unit partially closed the two Amazon workplaces, it found out that three other workplaces have already been closed by their employers and it is reviewing six additional workplaces to determine if closure is necessary.

“I think you can anticipate that there will be other closures once we’ve had a chance to review,” Loh told CBC News. “This is the first day, starting out, of our new policy.”

Loh noted that Peel has a number of workplaces where workers cannot work from home and where they are precariously or temporarily employed.

“It’s just a reflection of the unique makeup of the Region of Peel that we have taken this step.”

In a statement to CBC News on Saturday, Amazon said three shifts at the Brampton facility and one shift in Bolton are being temporarily suspended.

“Our most recent round of mandatory testing confirmed a positivity rate of approximately one per cent, and there appears to be little risk of spread within our facility. However, following the direction of Peel Public Health, we are temporarily suspending a number of shifts at our Heritage Road and Bolton facilities,” it said in a statement.

“We have 18 shifts operating at our Heritage Road facility and 18 shifts at our Bolton facility. All employees will receive full pay and benefits.”

According to Amazon, five or more cases were identified on the suspended shifts in the past two weeks, but it declined to say how many. It also declined to say how many workers are affected overall.

covid workplace closures 20210420
A person walks outside the Amazon fulfilment centre in Brampton, Ont., on April 20. In a statement to CBC News on Saturday, Amazon said three shifts at its Brampton facility and one shift at its centre in Bolton, Ont., are being temporarily suspended due to COVID-19 outbreaks. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The company said it would provide full pay and benefits to workers who are isolating and that all employees on the suspended shifts will be tested.

“Nothing’s more important than the health and safety of our employees and the communities we serve,” it added.

Amazon said the closure will have a “short-term impact” on its customers, but it will work to restore full service as soon as possible.

Companies urged to pay sick leave when closed

Peel Public Health said it would review the closures on a daily basis to determine the best course of action, adding that “modified closure criteria” would apply to large businesses.

“Based on risk assessment, it will be determined if full or partial closure is warranted,” Peel Public Health said in a news release on Friday.

Any closures could last up to 10 days, and all affected employees must go into isolation during that time. They are not allowed to work in any other workplace.

“Absent legislated paid sick days, employers required to close under these provisions are strongly recommended to provide paid leave for impacted employees,” the public health unit said.

The 10-day period will allow public health officials to investigate the outbreaks without the risk of spread of infection and to provide recommendations to the workplaces, the public health unit said.

Premier Doug Ford said on Thursday that his government has started work on a paid sick leave program after months of insisting that the program offered by the federal government was sufficient. The provincial government recently voted down a bill by the NDP that would have granted all workers access to paid sick days provided by their employers. 

dr lawrence loh
Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for Peel Region, said on Tuesday: ‘Workplaces that remain open continue to be a major driver of COVID-19 cases in Peel, as they have been throughout the course of our emergency response.’ (CBC)

Loh, for his part, has said: “Workplaces that remain open continue to be a major driver of COVID-19 cases in Peel, as they have been throughout the course of our emergency response.”

He said the closures would apply to businesses where those infected “could have reasonably acquired their infection at work” or if “no obvious source” for transmission is identified outside of the workplace.

Peel Region includes Brampton, Mississauga and Caledon. Bolton is a community in the town of Caledon.

Earlier this week, Peel Public Health and Toronto Public Health (TPH) announced that they would issue orders to force businesses with five or more cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks to close.

Peel has 100 active workplace outbreaks

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told reporters at a weekly news briefing on Wednesday that there are about 100 active workplace outbreaks in Peel Region. A total of 402 workplaces in Peel have had outbreaks since the pandemic began. She said workplace outbreaks lead to wider household and community spread.

“The reality is things have never been more serious,” she said.

A study by Peel Public Health has found that out of 8,000 workers who contracted COVID-19, nearly 2,000 of them, or one in four, went to work with COVID-19 symptoms, Crombie said.

A total of 80 of the workers went to work after receiving a positive COVID-19 test, she said.

“The action that Dr. Lawrence Loh has taken is necessary and addresses where the transmission is occurring,” she added.

Crombie acknowledged that Section 22 orders would be “very difficult” on businesses and employees.

TPH says identifying workplaces to be done ‘carefully’

Toronto Public Health, for its part, said on Saturday it is investigating 10 workplaces, and if there are any actions required under Section 22, it expects to notify the businesses starting on Monday.

TPH will notify the media at the city’s news briefing on Monday about when it will publicly disclose the names of the businesses.

“The primary objective and principal public health benefit of the order is to separate employees from one another in workplaces where transmission of COVID-19 is identified and linked to the location,” Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, said in a news release.

“These workplaces generally do not see high traffic from the general public. This is especially so given the province’s stay-at-home order and provincial regulation of public-facing business activity.”

TPH said it will notify the owner or operator of a workplace about whether a closure is full or partial and which employees need to be sent home to isolate for 10 days. It said it would posts signs at all entrances to a workplace subject to an order.

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