WINDSOR, Ont. — As the Windsor-Essex region partially entered Stage 2 of the province’s reopening plan this week, political leaders, health officials and farmers in the area expressed anxiety about efforts to contain COVID-19 outbreaks in the region’s sprawling greenhouses ahead of a possible second wave of the virus this fall.
The southwestern Ontario region became a hot spot for the virus this month, as a spike in cases among migrant workers led to hundreds of positive cases and two deaths.
The outbreaks also prompted the province to reopen only part of the region this week, leaving the towns of Leamington and Kingsville, Ont., behind as Windsor and other communities reopened further.
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, who has been critical of local efforts to contain the virus, said the partial reopening is a victory, but efforts to test and track infections on farms in the coming weeks will be crucial for the entire region — and the province.
“Unless you get this under control, it could be the cause of the second wave,” Dilkens said in an interview. “Having done everything we’ve done for the last hundred days, no one wants to go back.”
COVID-19 cases on farms in Leamington and Kingsville have accounted for more than half of Windsor-Essex’s entire case count over the past month, while the virus’s spread has slowed in more populous areas.
This week, Ontario announced a three-point plan to address the farm outbreaks, including the introduction of on-site testing.
Dilkens said it’s essential that the community, with the help of provincial and federal officials, make further improvements in working and living conditions on all farms.
But farmers must act as well to increase testing among their workers and provide appropriate protections, he said.
“There still has to be concrete action taken on the ground,” he said.
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald, meanwhile, paraphrased Premier Doug Ford’s strategy to protect long-term care homes, saying an “iron belt” must be placed around farms.
She said she appealed directly to Ford for resources to keep the greenhouses isolated and inspected as the pandemic moves towards a second wave.
“You need to send people down here so that we can get all the testing done, all the inspections done, and then we need to put our arms around it and keep them basically isolated from the rest of the community,” she said.
“These workers have come here for many years and they deserve to be safe.”
A local health official said there is a feeling at the Leamington hospital that in many ways the rest of the province is moving on, but they continue to tackle the problem head-on.
Dr. Ross Moncur, the interim CEO of Erie Shores HealthCare, said work done now to address outbreaks among migrant workers will determine the severity of a second wave.
Testing and isolating cases is necessary over the next few weeks, he said, while addressing workplace infection control and changing living conditions for the workers is essential.
This all must be done now, he said — not a year from now.
“We’ve probably done a lot of things in the last few months that we couldn’t do before,” he said. “And I think everyone needs to look at this through bright eyes and clear lenses and see if we can find solutions faster than we would ever have thought we could find them before.”
Leamington greenhouse grower Gerry Mastronardi said he too is worried about the spread of COVID-19 among workers in the sector and he’s instituted new safety rules and use of personal protective equipment (PPE). He’s encouraged everyone on his farm — domestic and migrant workers — to get tested.
Mastronardi’s 8.5-hectare greenhouse in Leamington is a flurry of activity, as workers process and package ripe red tomatoes clattering down a conveyor.
The virus has changed the way growers operate, and will continue to do so, Mastronardi said from behind a white face mask.
He defends local farmers, who he said are in favour of testing and are being unfairly blamed for impeding community efforts to combat the virus.
“This is not migrant workers only,” he said. “This is all of us together. We have to get this done.”
© 2020 The Canadian Press