TORONTO — Ontario introduced new legislation Tuesday to enable the extension of some pandemic emergency orders over the next year, a move an opposition critic said could curb checks on the powers granted to the government.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the legislation would allow the government to extend or amend some emergency orders a month at a time, with the law expiring a year after it's passed.
Jones said the legislation is needed to "bridge the gap" between the strict lockdown and public health measures required to initially flatten the virus curve, and the less stringent conditions needed as COVID-19 case numbers improve.
"It allows us to transition away from the declaration of emergency, which is an important signal to people that we're on our way out," she said. "But it also allows us to ensure that — because frankly, we don't have a vaccine for COVID-19 — that we still can keep in place the important tools we need."
Under current legislation, the province can only issue emergency orders while the state of emergency is in place.
Ontario's state of emergency is set to expire July 15, and Premier Doug Ford's office said it would introduce a motion Wednesday to extend it until July 24 to ensure there is no gap between the provincial declaration and when the new bill takes effect.
"Based on current public health trends, we expect this to be the final extension of the provincial declaration of emergency," spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said in a statement.
The legislation would allow the government to move parts of the province back to earlier stages of the pandemic lockdown if required. It could also continue the redeployment of health-care staff and change public health orders limiting social gatherings.
Emergency orders that permit the pickup and delivery of cannabis and prohibit price gouging on essential goods will not be included in the bill, and will expire next week.
Ontario first declared a state of emergency March 17 when the province's COVID-19 cases began to increase.
It has subsequently issued a series of emergency orders that have been extended a number of times since the start of the pandemic.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said while the government will need to have the ability to respond quickly as the pandemic continues, accountability mechanisms should remain in place.
"I want to make sure that if we're going to be granting the government such extraordinary powers over the next year, that the proper checks and balances and oversight and accountability is in the legislation," he said.
Jones said the bill will also introduce additional reporting requirements to bolster oversight. The government will have to report any emergency order extensions to a legislative committee once every month and table a report on the use of the law six months after it expires.
"We want to make sure that we're not overusing the declaration of emergency," she said.
Ontario reported 112 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and two new deaths. The total number of cases stood at 36,060, including 31,603 marked as resolved and 2,691 deaths. The province also reported 177 newly resolved cases, and 15,100 tests completed over the previous 24 hours.
The number of people in hospital because of the virus increased slightly, while patients in ICUs and on ventilators decreased.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 23 of the province's 34 public health units reported no new cases of COVID-19, and five reported five or fewer cases.
Meanwhile, health officials said they were looking into an outbreak of COVID-19 at a mushroom farm in Vaughan, Ont.
York Region Public Health said the "workplace cluster" involved 30 workers at Ravine Mushroom Farm. The agency said Tuesday it had determined the risk of transmitting the virus to the general public was low.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2020.