TORONTO — An already grim employment toll looked set to worsen Thursday as authorities pondered further tightening restrictions on people and businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the pandemic from suffocating the health-care system.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said too many Canadians were still going out needlessly, potentially spreading the coronavirus and putting health-care workers at unnecessary risk. At the same time, Trudeau said he was leaning on restrictions provinces have put in place rather than issuing a mandatory national stay-home order, which would require him to invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act.
"We're not quite yet at that point," Trudeau said.
The prime minister held a conference call with premiers later Thursday. A federal official said there was a consensus among first ministers that Trudeau need not invoke the Emergencies Act now.
The virus has now officially infected more than 11,000 Canadians and cost 130 lives.
Ontario on Thursday reported 16 more deaths bringing its total to 53, while a hard-hit nursing home in Bobcaygeon — possibly the site of the worst outbreak in the province — reported two new fatalities. Sixteen residents have died and at least 24 staff members at Pinecrest Nursing Home have been infected.
Quebec saw its caseload rise about 20 per cent since Wednesday, with three more deaths. COVID-19 has killed at least 36 people in the province and another 25 in British Columbia. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said almost half the deaths have occurred among especially vulnerable residents of long-term care homes.
Manitoba said more than 40 health-care workers at a Winnipeg hospital had been sent home after two staff members tested positive.
Experts say keeping a physical distance from others, along with frequent hand washing, is the most effective way of curbing the pandemic.
Governments everywhere have shut non-essential businesses and public facilities such as parks, beaches and playgrounds. All have repeatedly urged people to stay home except for essential outings.
Police in several jurisdictions have already arrested or fined alleged quarantine scofflaws or people disobeying limits on gatherings. Leaders warned Thursday of more to come if people didn't smarten up.
Forcing people to stay inside was still an option, albeit a drastic one, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said.
"That's the last thing someone wants to do, is the police marching around telling people to stay in their homes," Ford said. "I just don't believe in that. We're responsible. Do the right thing."
Quebec Premier Francois Legault urged police to clamp down on those flouting COVID-19 rules. He warned of fines of up to $6,000.
In Toronto, Mayor John Tory was blunt as he announced a new bylaw imposing a two-metre spacing rule for people in parks and squares for next 30 days, with fines of up to $5,000. People from the same household are exempt.
"Lives are potentially at stake, and we will turn up the heat in the hopes that the few who still don't get it, or pretend not to get it, will get with the program," Tory said.
The restrictions, which could last weeks or even months, have taken a hideous toll on employment — more than one million Canadians reported as having applied for jobless benefits. Liberal government measures designed to help the unemployed weather the crisis could cost more than $250 billion.
A survey by Restaurants Canada, which speaks for the industry, indicated 800,000 jobs have been lost to the pandemic. Almost one in 10 restaurants have closed and nearly one in five expected to close if conditions didn't improve soon, the survey suggested.
The billions the government planned to inject into the economy to mitigate the devastation was the subject of reports from Parliament's spending watchdog Thursday. Just three federal measures — aimed at helping low-income earners, families and seniors — will cost more than $8 billion, budget officer Yves Giroux said.
However, an analysis from the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated 862,000 unemployed workers —about one-third of the total — aren't eligible for aid.
"We're looking at ways to help everyone in Canada that needs it," Trudeau said. "We know there are many vulnerable people."
On Monday, the Canada Revenue Agency will begin delivering the federal aid, with as many as 300,000 Canadians expected to inquire a day about the $2,000-a-month benefit. The agency usually has up to 3,000 employees at call centres for tax season, but more than 7,000 volunteered to help. A spokesman said the agency has been able to pick and choose who's best to supplement its usual call-centre team.
—With files from Canadian Press reporters across the country.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2020.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 1,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers had volunteered to answer calls.