03/19/2020 17:03 EDT | Updated 03/20/2020 10:50 EDT

Doug Ford Delivers Coronavirus Speech To Near-Empty Legislature

Just 26 MPPs attended the emergency session on COVID-19, instead of the usual 124.

TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford delivered a speech about COVID-19 to a nearly empty legislature Thursday, after his government faced difficult questions about hospital capacity. 

“COVID-19 constitutes a danger of major proportions to all Ontarians,” he said as he introduced emergency legislation at Queen’s Park.

Ontario Legislative Assembly
Ontario Premier Doug Ford addresses a near-empty legislature Thursday during an emergency session to pass two COVID-19 laws.

“The spread of COVID-19 must be stopped in its tracks in order not to overwhelm our health-care system. It’s already having a serious impact on our health-care system and our economy. And that is why we are here today.”

The legislature held an emergency session — with just 26 members instead of the usual 124 — to pass pandemic legislation. MPPs spread out throughout the assembly to practise “social distancing.”

Ontario has 257 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as of midday Thursday and two deaths have been linked to the disease.

Now is the time to put politics aside.Premier Doug Ford

Opposition MPPs from the NDP, Liberal and Green parties cooperated with the Progressive Conservative government so that the laws could be passed quickly. 

“Now is the time to put politics aside,” Ford said. “No matter what our political stripe, we must all be Team Ontario and Team Canada.”

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
A skeleton crew of MPPs and staff attend an emergency session of Ontario's legislature on Thursday.

He outlined all the measures his government has taken so far to deal with the pandemic: 

  • Declared a state of emergency, prohibiting public events with more than 50 people and forcing some businesses and daycare centres to shut down;
  • Provided $304 million in funding to expand testing, increase capacity in hospitals, support public health, buy protective equipment for front-line workers and screen visitors at long-term care homes;
  • Suspended evictions;
  • Suspended renewals for health cards, driver’s licenses and license plates.

The two pieces of legislation passed Thursday will provide emergency leave for workers who can’t go to work during the COVID-19 outbreak and will allow the province to waive municipal noise bylaws so that stores can receive deliveries 24 hours a day.

Ontario Legislative Assembly
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath speaks during an emergency session of the Ontario legislature Thursday.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government must do more.

“While Ontarians are relieved by the legislation we’re considering here today, and relieved by the federal government’s support package, they’re also telling us that in the face of the incredible instability they are contending with, these measures must be the first step, not the only step,” she said. 

“I know a lot of people are worried about how they’re going to hold on.”

Questions raised about Ontario’s capacity

Earlier in the day, Ford and his health minister faced tough questions about how prepared Ontario’s hospitals are for the pandemic. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked about a simulation created by researchers at University of Toronto, University Health Network and Sunnybrook Hospital.

It found that if COVID-19 cases rose by 7.5 per cent a day, Ontario would run out of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in 37 days and ward beds in seven weeks. If cases rose 33 per cent a day — a worst case scenario based on what happened in Italy — Ontario would run out of ICU beds in 16 days and ward beds in five weeks.

Ontario reported a 20 per cent increase in cases Thursday and a 13 per cent increase Wednesday. 

“We are building capacity,” Elliott said. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen but we do know that the pressures on our health-care system are going to increase.”

We are building capacity.Health Minister Christine Elliott

She said the government is working to increase hospital capacity and move patients who are currently in the hospital to other places where they will be safe. 

When Ford announced the $304 million in funding Tuesday, he said it would pay for: 

  • 1,000 backfill nurses and 1,000 personal support workers,
  • 75 new critical care beds and 500 post-acute care beds,
  • 25 new COVID-19 assessment centres,
  • 50 emergency physicians for Indigenous, rural and remote communities.

Ontario has 1,700 ICU beds and ventilators, according to a report in the Toronto Star. It has an additional stockpile of 209 ventilators. 

Ford said Thursday that private businesses are stepping up to fill the need for medical equipment. 

Two auto manufacturers told him late Wednesday they could pivot to creating ventilators, Ford said. And one of his ministers is in touch with Canada Goose about using their sewing machines to make medical gowns, he added. 

He said those companies, as well as nurses coming out of retirement to answer Telehealth calls and everyday Ontarians offering to help their neighbours show Ontario’s “true spirit.”

“This is what it means to be Canadian.”