OTTAWA — The federal government unveiled historic new measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, promising a sweeping revamp of the national industrial landscape while closing the country’s doors to some who might once have been welcome.
As the nationwide number of cases surpassed 1,000, the federal government announced it would be supporting businesses to shift their operations to focus on products needed to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Previously announced measures to close the border with the United States will also be tightened even further, with Ottawa reversing a decision to isolate some would-be asylum seekers and opting to bar them entry instead.
“We recognize that the efforts we are going through are unprecedented,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a news conference outside his home, where he’s been in self-isolation for a week. “These are historic times in which we need to do everything we can to support Canadians and mobilize all our efforts in smart ways.”
Trudeau, who has long been emphasizing the need for personal actions to curb the spread of the illness, shifted his focus to the corporate realm with word of financial incentives for companies that join the fight against the global pandemic.
Government cash will be available to businesses that shift their practices to produce more goods needed for the ongoing COVID-19 containment effort, Trudeau said, such as auto parts manufacturers who switch gears to make badly needed medical supplies. Businesses already producing items such as masks and hand sanitizer, he added, will also receive support as they ramp up their operations.
Trudeau also announced a reversal of a previously announced measure related to the pending border closure with the United States, which was expected to go into effect late Friday.
Rather than placing asylum seekers entering Canada on foot in isolation as previously announced, Trudeau said those “irregular” border-crossers would be treated the same as most other travellers and turned away at the border.
Trudeau described the move as an exceptional, temporary measure to protect Canadians.
The mutual agreement between Ottawa and Washington will see the border closed to all but trade and essential travel at 11:59 p.m. as both countries grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Thousands of people have been crossing into Canada from the U.S. using unofficial entry points to get around a deal that forbids people from lodging asylum claims at land border crossings.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland called on Canadians to be patient as the government worked to enact the unprecedented new measures, saying Ottawa is departing from the norm by focusing on speed rather than perfection.
Freeland also reflected on the impact the COVID-19 outbreak is having on society at large, saying even the youngest Canadians are struggling to come to grips with the surreal new norm that’s shuttered everything from restaurants to schools over the past week.
“Having a long school holiday may have seemed fun when it was first announced. But when it also includes learning that you can’t have playdates, you can’t spend time with your friends, it’s really hard for our children,” Freeland said.
The struggle in getting that message across to young Canadians played out in downtown Toronto, where a massive lineup formed outside a local video game store ahead of the release of several highly anticipated titles.
The long queue, which actively flouted conventional wisdom on combating the spread of the virus, drew a sharp rebuke from Ontario’s premier.
Doug Ford expressed frustration with those eschewing the advice to practice social distancing, calling on businesses and parents to do what was necessary to keep kids safe.
“Isn’t it a shame that we have to go to this degree? You’re putting everyone else into danger,” he said. “Please do not create these environments out there.”
Ford’s remarks came as provincial health officials announced 60 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the national count of confirmed and presumptive diagnoses over 900. Data showing 49 new positive tests in Alberta, 18 in Quebec and six in Saskatchewan later edged the country past the bleak milestone of 1,000 cases overall.
Drastic provincial measures to combat the outbreak also continued to mount on Friday, with Manitoba becoming the latest jurisdiction to declare a state of emergency.
Premier Brian Pallister said the decision to limit public gatherings to less than 50 people was difficult, but described it as a necessary measure to contain the still growing outbreak.
In Saskatchewan, which made a similar declaration earlier in the week, Premier Scott Moe granted police additional powers to enforce government-mandated protection measures.
Moe said an emergency order signed earlier in the day now empowers officers to take any reasonable action up to an including arrest to enforce government orders, including a requirement that people returning from foreign travel self-isolate for 14 days.
“This is not a suggestion. It’s not a guideline. It is now the law,” Moe said.
Moe also moved to further limit public gatherings, capping the maximum number of attendees at 25.
Canadians have increasingly sought government support over the past week as the pandemic encroaches ever further on daily life. Businesses, schools and previously routine activities have been shutting down en masse as a growing number of people are forced into self-isolation or urged to practice social distancing to help “flatten the curve.”
Trudeau said Service Canada and other government agencies have seen an exponential surge of calls for help in recent weeks, noting the government logged some 500,000 applications for employment insurance this past week, compared to 27,000 during the same period a year ago.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says most people with COVID-19 experience manageable symptoms like a fever and cough. For seniors, those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, the illness can be more severe.