The Windsor-Essex region will join the rest of Ontario in Stage 3 of the province’s reopening plan today.
Premier Doug Ford made the announcement Monday, saying COVID-19 case counts have dropped enough to warrant the move.
The decision means most businesses and public spaces to will be allowed to reopen, but public health guidance on physical distancing and social “bubbles” of 10 people remain in place.
Outbreaks among migrant workers on farms in the region had previously held Windsor-Essex back from Stage 3, which other parts of the province entered throughout last month.
Windsor’s mayor said Tuesday that the city will move forward “cautiously” and ask for additional resources if case counts spike.
Mayor Drew Dilkens said the entire Windsor-Essex region, which has been left behind in the economic reopening because of virus outbreaks on local farms, is feeling relief as it prepares to move to Stage 3 on Wednesday.
Local businesses have suffered from the prolonged delay and the city has a $30 million budget hole because of the pandemic, Dilkens said.
“No one wants to be in last place,” he said. “When you’re the last one to move forward, there’s a spotlight that’s shone on you. I know just talking to business people here in our community, they have been struggling.”
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford announced that Windsor-Essex would proceed to the Stage 3 of reopening, meaning all of Ontario will have progressed to the final part of the province’s pandemic recovery plan.
Windsor-Essex had been held back in both the second and third stages of the plan because of the farm outbreaks, which have seen hundreds of workers contract the virus and two of them die.
In June, the province launched a mobile testing unit that would travel to farms across the region to test workers. But the effort has not been universally embraced by farmers or workers, and progress has been slow.
The local health unit said there are 131 active COVID-19 cases in the community — 63 of them among agri-food workers.
The medical officer of health, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, said on-farm testing has taken place at just 38 of the 176 region’s farms, but he expects that number to increase.
“I think they have farms are signing up as we speak, the uptake is pretty good,” Ahmed said. “And I don’t want to assume that the farms that are not signing up have active cases.”
The local health unit reports five farms remain in outbreak along with four manufacturing businesses.
Dilkens said he would like to see on-farm testing move faster, but acknowledged that strict requirements some local growers have put in place to isolate workers from the community may help contain spread.
“Some individual farms may have outbreaks (and) those employees are staying on the farms,” he said.
Premier Doug Ford, who will visit Windsor later this week, said he continues to press for all farms in the region to participate in a COVID-19 testing program.
“Would I like to see all the farms tested? One hundred per cent,” he said. “I’m up here, begging and pleading with the farmers that they have public health in there to do the testing.”
Dilkens said in spite of the challenges with farm testing, he is confident that declining COVID-19 cases in the region over the last week make it safe to reopen further.
He also praised the province for dispatching additional resources to the region to help co-ordinate the local response to the farm outbreaks.
Even as the region reopens, thousands more migrant workers are expected to arrive in the coming weeks to work on local farms and local greenhouses.
Dilkens said if he sees COVID-19 case numbers spike as a result of the reopening he will ask for help from the province and federal government.
“It’s a situation that has to be managed in a cautious and considerate way,” he said.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 migrant workers come to Windsor-Essex each year.
Ontario reported 33 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday — the lowest daily case count in months — but the province’s health minister attributed part of the drop to “routine data clean-up.”
Toronto Public Health removed 21 cases, including some duplicates, from its total, Christine Elliott said in a tweet.
© The Canadian Press