Employers clamp down on ‘ambiguous’ mask rules as more infections tied to workplaces

By Brett Bundale

THE CANADIAN PRESS

On the factory floor, masks were optional.

Until last month, workers at TEC Business Solutions’s corrugated packaging plant in Mississauga, Ont. donned a mask, underwent a COVID-19 screening, had a temperature check and sanitized their hands but once inside and at their own stations, they could remove their masks.

“It gets really warm in there and it can be hard to breathe with a mask,” said Mike Prencipe, the chief operating officer at TEC Business Solutions. “We said if workers can physically distance, they can remove their masks.”

Then two shop workers tested positive for COVID-19, followed by two office employees.

“Everyone around them had to quarantine,” Prencipe said, noting that the bulk of the plant’s workforce had to stay home for two weeks. “We’ve now made it our own policy that if you’re in the plant, you have to wear a mask at all times.”

The small outbreak at the Ontario packaging plant illustrates how workplaces are emerging as a driving force in the second wave of the pandemic.

A growing number of infections can be traced back to workplaces, including in manufacturing, warehouse and shipping facilities, according to Ontario data on active outbreaks by setting.

The province declared a second state of emergency Tuesday amid rising COVID-19 case counts and tightened rules around masks in workplaces among other measures.

More than 10,000 workers have contracted COVID-19 due to work-related exposures, statistics from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board show.

One of the issues that appears to be fuelling workplace infections is the lack of clarity or consistency surrounding mask-wearing rules in workplaces in Canada.

Across the country, each province and in some cases individual health units or workplace safety boards offer varying guidance on masks at work.

It’s a patchwork that can be confusing. Multiple business operators say they want to stick to the rules and keep workers safe, but have found the regulations unclear.

The  “ambiguous” messaging around mask-wearing in the workplace prompted the office manager at TEC Business Solutions to repeatedly call public health over the last several months to ensure they were following rules, Prencipe said.

“We wanted to follow the protocols and keep our employees safe,” he said. “They told us we were taking the right precautions.”

Still, Prencipe made the call to tighten the mask rules in his workplace following the December outbreak, a move that Ontario appears to have followed.

In response to the “alarming and exceptional circumstances,” the province said individuals are now required to wear a mask or face covering in the indoor areas of businesses at all times.

Ontario is also stepping up enforcement measures. Provincial workplace inspectors are expected to focus on areas of high transmission, including break rooms, and issue tickets those not wearing a mask indoors.

Indeed, Prencipe said the virus may have been spread in either the company’s lunchroom or bathroom, spaces that both plant and office workers access.

Yet other provinces continue to only require masks in workplaces where employees are interacting with the public, or if two meters of distance cannot be maintained between workers.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the provincial mask requirement applies to spaces the public has access to  not private spaces.

“We encourage business owners/employers to set their own policies for private spaces,” Health Department spokeswoman Marla MacInnis said in an email.

Ontario to provide COVID 19 liability protection to workers and some organizations

Ontario to provide COVID 19 liability protection to workers and some organizations

By Shawn Jeffords and Liam Casey

THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO _ Health-care workers, businesses and non-profits could receive liability protection against COVID-19-related lawsuits under legislation proposed by the Ontario government Tuesday, but critics said the bill would result in extra protection for long-term care providers who failed residents during the pandemic.

Attorney General Doug Downey said that if passed, the proposed law would ensure that anyone making an “honest effort” to follow public health guidelines while working or volunteering would not be exposed to liability.

He noted, however, that the bill would not prevent lawsuits against those who willfully or through “gross negligence” endangered others during the pandemic.

“This is not going to help anybody who’s a bad actor, people who ignore the public health guidance,” he said. “This is really to help those who are doing things in good faith.”

The government said health-care workers and institutions, front line retail workers, charities, and non-profits would be covered by the bill. The legislation would also cover coaches, volunteers and minor sports associations, and would be retroactive to March.

In terms of long-term care providers, Downey said the bill would cover those who saw “inadvertent transmission” of COVID-19 in their facilities.

“Those who act in good faith and make honest efforts will receive a level of protection,” Downey said.

“But this will not help people who are being sued for wrongful death, assault and battery, or failure to provide necessities, or fraud or charter violations, or trespass to the person.”

The Ontario Long-Term Care Association, which represents more than 70 per cent of nursing homes in the province, has been asking for such measures for months, CEO Donna Duncan said.

The proposed law will not absolve any provider of responsibility when it comes to issues of gross negligence, she said.

“Liability protection is a necessary measure to stabilize and renew Ontario’s entire long-term care sector,” Duncan said in a statement. “Without it, many insurance companies will cease coverage, as they have already begun to do, putting homes across the province at risk and jeopardizing their expansion and renewal.”

COVID-19 has killed 1,907 long-term care residents since the pandemic began. There has been a recent surge of cases in the second wave, with 87 homes currently experiencing outbreaks.

Dozens of homes across the province face numerous lawsuits, including several class-action suits with unproven claims in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada said it supports the legislation, which it called balanced and responsible.

Steve Kee, a bureau spokesman, said the legislation illustrates the government’s support for entrepreneurs and hardworking Ontarians as they focus on getting through the COVID-19 threat.

“Today’s legislation is intended to protect the good actors _ those who follow public health guidelines _ from certain civil liability,” he said in a statement.

“As tabled, it would not protect bad actors against other legal consequences, including criminal charges.”

Michael Smitiuch, a personal injury lawyer who represents several families who are suing long-term care homes after losing loved ones to COVID-19, criticized the government’s proposed law.

“Losing a loved one during this pandemic because of mistreatment and lack of attention is already devastating to families, but having them die in vain will be even worse if they can’t seek justice for them,” Smitiuch said.

He said the government is essentially “raising the bar” on negligence to a “high degree of negligence.”

“This will create an unnecessary layer of protection for bad actors,” Smitiuch said. “These changes will help insurance companies save money and will hurt victims and their families.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was shocked by the new bill and that if a long-term care home failed in its duty to protect a resident, it should be liable.

“This bill protects the for-profit long-term care homes,” she said. “It protects the backside of the Ford government, but what they never did was protect the seniors in long-term care.”

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he is concerned that the bill will protect the “bad actors” the government says will still be held accountable.

“Negligent long-term care homes do not deserve a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card for the lives that were stolen on their watch,” he said in a statement.

 

Existing policy holders received rebate cheques, but drivers seeking new policies saw higher average prices

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Why can’t Toronto music venues get insurance?

“It’s a catch-22. The system says we need insurance, but the system won’t provide it to us.”

The excerpted article was by Richard Trapunski | nowtotonto.com

There’s a new obstacle facing Toronto’s already precarious live music venues: none of them seem to be able to get insurance.

A coalition of the city’s venues are calling on the Ontario government to help them figure out why so many are being refused renewals on commercial liability insurance.

After months of behind-the-scenes advocacy, no one has come up with answers.

“Live music venues in Ontario are facing unprecedented hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Shaun Bowring, owner of the Baby G and the Garrison, in a press release. “In addition to 100 per cent loss of revenue now over six full months, permanent loss of valued employees and lack
of resources/funding to cover basic operational costs, as an industry we are now facing an unparalleled crisis in regard to commercial insurance.

“Commercial insurance rates for live music venues have risen between 200-400 per cent over the last 10 years,” he adds. “Now, the unregulated insurance industry in Ontario has presented… predatory practices making it near impossible for many in our industry to continue operating our businesses.”

Bowring is part of a live music operators group called Love You Live, which represents about two dozen local venues. He says many are experiencing some version of the same problem: their policies are running out and they’ve been refused renewal. They’ve spoken to multiple brokers and looked at companies they know insure music venues, and they’re all coming up empty.

Is this an existential threat to music venues?

Liability insurance protects a commercial space against claims resulting from injuries or damage to people or property in the space. Most venues are not open right now, or those that are have limited capacity, but many commercial leases in Toronto include a clause requiring commercial liability insurance. Without it, their landlords could evict them.

Jeff Cohen is the owner of the Horseshoe Tavern (and also a member of the group). He tells NOW he knows of at least eight venues whose liability insurance has expired since April or May – or whose will soon – and whose brokers are telling them they can’t get it renewed or find a new policy. That includes his venues (the Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace), plus the Garrison and Baby G, Phoenix Concert Theatre, Lula Lounge, Castro’s and Dakota Tavern among others.

Dakota owner Stephen Reid posted on Facebook that the venue “faces a one-month countdown to permanent closure” if the insurance situation isn’t resolved. The Ossington venue has asked for support from its community, to buy beer and snacks so they can stay afloat.

Non-music venue restaurants and bars have also been reporting insurance issues since the pandemic started. They say that their policies are ballooning, but Bowring says this is different.

“They’re saying their renewals are at rates three times higher, which is tough,” Reid says on the phone. “But we’re not even getting that. We’re just not getting renewals.”

The coalition has been working behind the scenes for two months or so before they went public, he says, trying to get meetings with Ontario politicians or people from the insurance industry to find out what’s going on and how they can resolve it. They’ve had help from the city, including the Toronto Music Advisory Council (Cohen and Bowring are both members), but insurance falls under provincial legislation. And commercial insurance is unregulated in Ontario.

“I understand there’s much bigger things gong on, lots of sectors hurting, but we’re one of them too,” Bowring says. “We’re entrepreneurs and small businesses and we have jobs depending on us.

“The [Doug Ford] government’s catch phrase is that they’re open for business. Well, it seems like they’re only open for select businesses.”

Where is the Ontario government and where are the insurance companies?

Scott Blodgett, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Finance, says the government encourages businesses to work with their insurers or brokers and ask about opportunities for premium relief or mid-term adjustments.

“We want to assure you that this government has been in regular contact with the insurance industry to raise issues concerning insurance availability and affordability during the pandemic, especially for small-business owners,” he says in a statement.

Pete Karageorgos is the director of consumer and industry relations at the Insurance Bureau of Canada. He manages a consumer information centre that helps businesses, home owners and automobile owners with questions related to insurance. He says he’s seen more inquiries from businesses than usual, but not necessarily from music venues. But he’s not surprised that insurance would be an issue for them.

In the first part of the shutdown, from March to June, insurance companies across Canada provided over a billion dollars in premium relief to both individuals and businesses.

“Like businesses, insurers are grappling with new financial challenges,” he says. “They might not be willing to assume the same amount of risk.”

His suggestion for music venues is to shop around as much as possible and to negotiate.

“Even if you get a letter saying, ‘We’re not renewing you,’ ask if there’s anything you can do to adjust the deductible limit or highlight to the insurance provider that you’re a good risk, that you’re conscientious,” he advises. “At the end of the day, insurance companies want to support their clients. It’s in their best interests to make businesses succeed.”

Insurers might be seeing that music venues serve alcohol, operate at night, maybe they have dancing – and seeing that as liability risk. But many of the music venues searching for insurance aren’t even operating right now. That means their their risk of liability is actually lower than it would be before or after the pandemic. If there are no customers in the building, there is virtually no liability. Yet if they can’t get liability insurance, as soon as customers are allowed back in, the venue would be at full risk if someone were to sue.

If all venues are getting refused, could there be some collusion happening among insurance providers? It’s hard to tell because no one seems to be able to get a straight answer.

Can the city step in?

In the meantime, the Toronto Music Office and Toronto Music Advisory Committee are looking for ways to navigate the issue. In their September 24 meeting, they put forward a motion to meet with other departments at the city about potentially spearheading a group insurance plan for Toronto music venues. Then the city could potentially underwrite the policy, assume the risk and guarantee coverage of unpaid fees.

The city has been building protections for music venues, including a recently implemented property tax break, so maybe they could step in if landlords were to try to evict for lack of insurance.

For Cohen, who admits the Horseshoe has a standing and stature that smaller independent venues might not, he’s willing to operate whether or not he can get the insurance.

He’d even be willing to go to court.

“What judge is going to look at me and say I couldn’t operate because I couldn’t get liability insurance?” he says. “It’s like a band who comes to town and wants Mexican Coke in their rider. I can’t buy it if it’s not available.

 

Suspicious activity found on 48,000 CRA accounts after cyberattacks

OTTAWA _ The Treasury Board of Canada says it has uncovered suspicious activities on more than 48,000 Canada Revenue Agency accounts following cyberattacks in July and August.

The treasury says the previously-announced attacks targeted CRA accounts and GCKey, an online portal through which Canadians access employment insurance and immigration services.

Attackers used a method called credential stuffing, which takes advantage of people who reuse usernames and passwords across multiple platforms that may have been previously hacked.

The treasury says GCKey was not compromised, but it has revoked 9,300 credentials for its system and is contacting those users in hopes of blocking subsequent attacks.

Canadians who receive a revocation message can register for new credentials or make use of the SecureKey Concierge, which lets users sign in to 269 government services through partners, such as major banks.

The treasury says the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s investigation into the attacks is still ongoing and affected departments have been in contact with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to provide updates on what personal information has been compromised.

Air Canada first out the gate with new COVID-19 related insurance

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