A Simcoe farmer who is challenging local rules on bunkhouse quarantines sees further vindication in an advisory from Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.
In a note to Norfolk and Haldimand’s board of health, Brett Schuyler points out that Dr. David Williams doesn’t include a three-man cap on bunkhouses during the mandatory, 14-day quarantine for migrant workers once they arrive in Ontario.
“My request is that the board of health direct (Dr. Shanker Nesathurai), the medical officer of health, to do the following,” Schuyler said June 22 in an email to Norfolk council, which serves as the board of health for Norfolk and Haldimand counties.
“Repeal the current order regarding migrant farm workers, issue a new order pursuant to Dr. Williams’ memorandum — which notably does not provide for a pre-determined number of workers that can isolate together — (and) seek input from key industry stakeholders prior to issuing this new order.”
In March, Nesathurai went beyond federal and provincial guidance when he said no bunkhouse or house trailer used on a farm for quarantine purposes can accommodate more than three migrant workers for the mandatory 14-day duration. The Haldimand-Norfolk health district is the only one in Ontario with this stipulation.
Nesathurai imposed the stricter standard to ensure COVID-19 outbreaks in bunkhouse settings remain manageable and don’t disable a farm operation or overwhelm health-care facilities. Local farmers – Schuyler among them – object because this is causing delays in taking on strength at a critical time of the growing season.
Many of the more than 200 farmers in Norfolk and Haldimand who rely on bunkhouse labour warn that production in 2020 will be down across the board because of Nesathurai’s order.
June 12, Ontario’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board sided with Schuyler Farms, ruling that Nesathurai’s three-man cap was “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.” Within hours of that decision, Nesathurai announced a court challenge of the review board finding. It will be heard at the end of July.
Norfolk has registered one cluster outbreak on a farm involving migrant workers. A total of 199 Mexican workers at Scotlynn Group in Vittoria were infected during a cluster outbreak that began at the end of May. One of these workers died on the weekend.
Williams and other provincial officials are especially concerned about the dozens of cluster outbreaks at large farm operations in Windsor-Essex County. COVID-19 is such a problem there that Windsor-Essex remains in a Stage 1 lockdown while most of the rest of Ontario has moved to a limited re-opening of non-essential businesses.
In his advisory statement to Ontario health units, Williams says farmers should refrain from mixing migrant workers with workers who have been hired from the community.
Williams says workers should be divided into “pods” and discouraged from interacting with others outside the group. The goal here is to prevent the spread of infections to the general workforce.
Williams wants farmers to maintain detailed contact information for all individuals working on a farm in case they need to be traced for testing. As well, he says farmers should provide protective equipment in situations where the risk of viral spread is elevated.
Norfolk and Haldimand’s board of health had a lengthy discussion of Nesathurai’s bunkhouse cap on June 19. A motion opposing Nesathurai’s continued pursuit of the matter in the courts was defeated in a 5-3 vote, with Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin, Vittoria Coun. Chris Van Paassen and Delhi Coun. Mike Columbus in the minority.
In a media release issued on June 23, the board of health says it takes the concerns of the farming community seriously but it has no power to overrule the Section 22 order concerning the number of people per bunkhouse.
“We wish to publicly acknowledge these concerns, and re-iterate to the farming community that we take them very seriously,” said the release.
“There is, however, no ability for the board of health to overrule or change Section 22 orders issued by the Medical Officer of Health, who operates independently of the board.”