05/19/2020 10:16 EDT | Updated 05/19/2020 15:48 EDT

Ontario To Investigate Long-Term Care Amid COVID-19 Deaths

Almost 1,400 residents have died from the novel coronavirus in Ontario's long-term care homes.

TORONTO — Ontario entered its first stage of reopening many businesses Tuesday, even as the number of new COVID-19 cases rose and the province extended its emergency orders and shuttered schools until September.

The official start to the province’s reopening plan included giving the green light to retailers, some sport and recreation facilities, vehicle dealerships, pet services and house cleaners.

Those businesses still have to comply with public health guidelines such as physical distancing as they welcome customers. Some business owners have expressed relief and excitement at the prospect of reopening, while others say they feel it’s too early to do so safely.

Customers lined up outside many stores with limits on how many people could be inside — and welcomed the chance to do so.

I think this is no different than what we’re already doing with grocery stores.Madeleine Lewis

Madeleine Lewis stood in a short line outside a PetSmart in Toronto’s west end with her two dogs.

“I think this is no different than what we’re already doing with grocery stores,” she said. “We’ll be careful — it’s just much easier for me to shop for the dogs here than online.”

Jonathon Jackson waited about 30 minutes to get into Sail, an outdoor sports store, to look for fishing gear.

“It seems pretty safe to me and I do like to be able to shop in person to see exactly what I’m getting,” said Jackson, who wore gloves and a face mask.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton answers questions about COVID-19 at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 30, 2020.

Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford made a much-anticipated announcement on the fate of the school year, saying he didn’t want to risk sending kids back now.

“This wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was the right decision,” he said.

The province also extended its emergency orders Tuesday until May 29, including the closure of bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery, and limiting gatherings to five people.

However, the government is making a new exemption for drive-in religious gatherings, if vehicles are kept at least two metres apart and only contain members of the same household, and no one leaves their vehicle.

Included in the reopening are multi-use fields, off-leash dog areas, outdoor picnic sites, benches and shelters in parks. Outdoor playgrounds, splash pads and swimming pools will stay closed for now.

15 more deaths reported Tuesday

Ontario reported 427 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, and 15 more deaths.

That brings the total in the province to 23,384 cases — an increase of 1.9 per cent over the previous day, which is the largest growth rate in a week and a half. The total includes 1,919 deaths and 17,898 cases that have been resolved.

Ontario has seen massive drops in the numbers of tests completed over the past couple of days. The number went from about 16,000 two days ago to just 5,813 reported Tuesday.

In recent days, a goal of testing every long-term care resident was completed and Ontario just recently expanded guidelines for the general public, making it clear that anyone with symptoms can get tested.

According to data from the Ministry of Long-Term Care, which is from a different database than the provincial totals, 1,408 long-term care residents and five staff members have died.

Province announces independent commission

Ontario announced Tuesday it is launching an independent commission into the province’s long-term care system.

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association, opposition parties and the health-care union SEIU have all called for a full public inquiry into the sector.

But Ford suggested that would take too long.

“I’m not going to sit here and wait for 2 1/2, 3 1/2 years for an inquiry to give us recommendations,” he said. “I’m responsible at the end of the day to make sure we get the answers.”

Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said COVID-19 has “broken” the long-term care system and the province cannot lose time addressing the situation by waiting for the findings of a public inquiry.

“In some ways, we’re arguing about semantics when we really need to be getting into action,” she said.

Fullerton said a commission is the best way to do a thorough and “expedited” review. It will start in September, and in the meantime the government will be finalizing terms of reference, leadership and timelines, she said.

The number of long-term care homes experiencing an outbreak has grown over the past few weeks, to 190 on Tuesday, even as the government has imposed increasing restrictions and implemented widespread testing.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said during a session at the Ontario legislature Tuesday that a government commission is not good enough.

“Families and front-line workers deserve openness,” she said. “They deserve transparency and the concrete change that can only come with a full and open public inquiry.”

With files from Liam Casey and Shawn Jeffords

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2020.

Also On HuffPost: