Yabsta News

Trinity Bellwoods clears out as police move in

Trinity Bellwoods Park was a lot quieter Sunday a day after thousands of people converged on the downtown green space, ignoring social-distancing guidelines and triggering a wave of criticism and warnings by alarmed officials.To ensure Saturday’s droves weren’t repeated, an enhanced complement of Toronto police and bylaw officers spread the word in the west-end park that no alcohol was to be consumed and that COVID-19 protocols must be followed.Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he had been “absolutely shocked” to see photos of the crowds that showed up at Trinity Bellwoods, saying at first he thought it was “a rock concert.” “We just can’t have that right now. It’s just too many people, too close,” he said Sunday at Queen’s Park. “There is still a deadly virus amongst us and if we allow it, it will spread — it will spread like wildfire.”City workers were dispatched to the park Sunday to pick up leftover garbage. Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders came to the area to talk to neighbours, some of them irate that their properties were used as toilets by park visitors.Saunders defended the deployment of his officers Saturday and their handling of what was not a “planned event.” It was impractical for police to issue tickets to all the people violating social-distancing rules — or who were boozing in a public place while park washrooms remained closed due to the pandemic.While the majority of the city’s nearly three million residents have complied with restrictions since the lockdown began in mid-March, Saunders said he also understands that the threat of COVID-19 is invisible to many. “If it was scorpions, there would be nobody here around the park,” he said.City of Toronto spokesman Brad Ross also turned up at Trinity Bellwoods, which borders Queen Street West on the south and Dundas Street on the north. He told reporters that Saturday’s massive turnout there was “the exception” and that the vast majority of people visiting Toronto’s 1,500 parks did so in a safe manner.Any two or more people who are not members of the same household, and who fail to keep at least two metres of distance between them in a park or public square, can receive a $1,000 fine.Officials want to continue to emphasize education, but enforcement will take place if necessary, Ross warned: “We don’t want any repeats of (Saturday) so going forward we’ll make sure that there’s an appropriate presence of police and bylaw enforcement officers, not just in this park and other parks.” On Saturday, officers issued 14 tickets in parks — four of them in Trinity Bellwoods, according to a city press release.On Saturday night, perplexed by the images of the crowd, Mayor John Tory went to the park to ask people what they were doing there. Photos of him circulated online showing him talking to people with his mask lowered. Some suggested that he was breaking the two-metre distance rule.Don Peat, the mayor’s spokesman, released a statement Sunday that said during his visit, Tory made “significant efforts” to maintain physical distance, moving when people came too close or asking them to step back.“We are all getting used to wearing face coverings in public and the Mayor will make sure his mask is on properly when he is out in public in situations where public health and physical distancing guidelines recommend wearing one.”Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy

24th, May 2020, 05:07pm

Mayor apologizes for breaking COVID-19 rules at Trinity Bellwoods Park

Trinity Bellwoods Park was a lot quieter Sunday a day after thousands of people converged on the downtown green space, ignoring social-distancing guidelines and triggering a wave of criticism and warnings by alarmed officials.To ensure Saturday’s droves weren’t repeated, an enhanced complement of Toronto police and bylaw officers spread the word in the west-end park that no alcohol was to be consumed and that COVID-19 protocols must be followed.Even Mayor John Tory, who visited the park throng on Saturday, was among those who fell short, as he conceded in a statement released Sunday.“I want to apologize for my personal behaviour,” Tory said via Twitter. “I visited Trinity Bellwoods Park to try to determine why things were the way they were. I fully intended to properly physically distance but it was very difficult to do. I wore a mask into the park but I failed to use it properly, another thing I’m disappointed about.“These were mistakes that I made and as a leader in this city, I know that I must set a better example going forward.”Don Peat, the mayor’s spokesman, said Tory had made “significant efforts” to maintain physical distance, moving when people came too close or asking them to step back.Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he had been “absolutely shocked” to see photos of the crowds that showed up at Trinity Bellwoods, saying at first he thought it was “a rock concert.” “We just can’t have that right now. It’s just too many people, too close,” he said Sunday at Queen’s Park. “There is still a deadly virus amongst us and if we allow it, it will spread — it will spread like wildfire.”City workers were dispatched to the park Sunday to pick up leftover garbage. Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders came to the area to talk to neighbours, some of them irate that their properties were used as toilets by park visitors.Saunders defended the deployment of his officers Saturday and their handling of what was not a “planned event.” It was impractical for police to issue tickets to all the people violating social-distancing rules — or who were boozing in a public place while park washrooms remained closed due to the pandemic.While the majority of the city’s nearly three million residents have complied with restrictions since the lockdown began in mid-March, Saunders said he also understands that the threat of COVID-19 is invisible to many. “If it was scorpions, there would be nobody here around the park,” he said.City of Toronto spokesman Brad Ross also turned up at Trinity Bellwoods, which borders Queen Street West on the south and Dundas Street on the north. He told reporters that Saturday’s massive turnout there was “the exception” and that the vast majority of people visiting Toronto’s 1,500 parks did so in a safe manner.Any two or more people who are not members of the same household, and who fail to keep at least two metres of distance between them in a park or public square, can receive a $1,000 fine.Officials want to continue to emphasize education, but enforcement will take place if necessary, Ross warned: “We don’t want any repeats of (Saturday) so going forward we’ll make sure that there’s an appropriate presence of police and bylaw enforcement officers, not just in this park and other parks.” On Saturday, officers issued 14 tickets in parks — four of them in Trinity Bellwoods, according to a city press release.Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy

24th, May 2020, 05:07pm

What will Ontario daycares look like when they reopen?

There will be emotional as well as physical changes to manage when daycare centres are once again able to welcome children in stage 2 of Ontario’s plan to restart the economy, and initial gaps could leave some Ontario households with no options for child care.Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced last week that daycares will remain closed for the time being, except for emergency centres serving the children of front-line workers. But as the economy reopens — with phase 1 of Ontario’s plan now underway — parents, especially those facing a return to work, are wondering what daycare will look like in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.How will physical distancing be enforced? Will temporary staff be able to enter the centres? What is the policy if a child or staff member tests positive for the coronavirus? Will a child lose their spot if their parents decide not to send them back right away? Those are just some of the questions parents posed to the Star about their children’s care.“Child care is going to look different when it reopens and it’s going to take time to gradually return to full capacity, so we’re just going to have to be flexible working with families and really flexible working with operators,” said Shanley McNamee, general manager of children’s services for the city of Toronto.The framework for reopening 1,000 child-care centres in Toronto — with 80,000 spots among them — is expected to come down from the province. That will be translated by the local public health unit and regional funders into guidelines for each centre. The city of Toronto is currently operating seven emergency child-care centres, mostly for children of front-line workers. The city has worked closely with the province and Toronto Public Health on developing enhanced infection protocols and policies for those centres, and will do the same for the centres reopening in future. Safety measures include screening children and staff, enhancing cleaning protocols, and reduced group sizes — in emergency care centres, groups have dropped from 16 children to five children. Staff in emergency child-care centre were assigned to a single location. While that was easier to do with only seven locations and a large workforce, McNamee expects the practice to continue, at least initially, when other centres reopen. At city-run centres, staff wear personal protective equipment when they can’t physically distance, for instance when doing screenings, escorting children to their rooms or feeding or changing younger children. All emergency child-care staff members have been tested for COVID-19. Premier Doug Ford last week discussed the possibility of testing teachers and daycare staff as part of the province’s forthcoming testing plan. New training for staff was also implemented and “regularly reinforced,” said McNamee, in an environment where children may not always understand the parameters of physical distancing or want to wear face coverings.The centres themselves will also take on a different look, said McNamee. “The rooms have been kind of reimagined to lay out areas with tape and even the tables that they sit at, so they’re not sitting side by side,” she said. “You can do that when you only have five kids in a room where you’d normally have 16.“You can never completely socially distance when you’re working with children,” McNamee acknowledged, “but if you see what the rooms look like, they do look very different.”At the YMCA’s emergency child-care centre, dress-up clothes and puppets have been put away, along with any materials that aren’t easy to clean. There are now four chairs to a table where there used to be six. Each child gets their own craft kit or ingredients for snacks instead of sharing materials. But the 300 centres in the Greater Toronto Area — including more than 70 in the city of Toronto — won’t look all that different when they reopen than they did before the pandemic, said Kerri Lewis, the general manager of child and family development for the YMCA of Greater Toronto. That’s thanks to robust sanitary and health-care procedures required for licenced child-care centres in the province prior to the pandemic, Lewis said. “It’s a whole range of suppression standards for controlling infectious disease from spreading,” she said. “It’s not just masks, it’s not just physical distancing … it’s adjusting programming, keeping in small groups, spreading out personal belongings, cleaning more frequently.” Physical distancing is in many ways achievable by smaller groups, said Lewis. Smaller numbers have also allowed staff in emergency child-care centres to develop deeper relationships with the children they’re serving, she said.That may be crucial as children return to daycare centres, said Charles Pascal, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. While parents and daycare staff pay attention to the physical well-being of the children, their emotional well-being can’t be ignored.“When the youngest of our young are going back into these centres, they’re carrying with them a whole bunch of very different issues, depending on the home ... It’s really critical that that relationship between the early childhood educator and the parents is a fluid conversation about how are your kids doing,” said Pascal, who hopes the pandemic will shine a light on the importance of “grossly underpaid” early childhood educators.Pascal suggests staff at daycare centres reach out to parents between now and reopening to find out how the children are handling the pandemic. Opening a dialogue, which he stresses should continue once centres resume operation, could help ease parents’ stress, too. “The early childhood educators can also bring a certain calm to the parents regarding the fact that we’re going to have a great, high-quality environment for your kids,” he said. “That would be good prep.”McNamee said child-card operators are expecting the transition back to daycare will be difficult for some kids, and they have tools, materials and staff prepared to handle those situations. But not all children will be welcome back right away. McNamee expects a gradual reopening before centres return to full capacity. The city and the province will work together on prioritizing who gets spots, likely applying an equity lens, taking into account parents’ work situation and whether or not they’re part of a vulnerable population.“We’ve never been in this situation before,” she said. “What I expect is right now there’s a reduced capacity, there’s smaller group sizes in the emergency child care (centres), and I expect that will continue. The whole notion of demand and people returning is going to be a lot of the work we do to really help families navigate.” Laura Armstrong is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy

24th, May 2020, 04:26pm

Wiping down groceries is stressful. So two Toronto women have helped develop a machine that will use UV light to sanitize at the checkout

Two Toronto women are behind an idea to use ultraviolet light to sanitize groceries at the checkout counter and the duo already have interest from two major grocery chains in Ontario.Alyssa Mincer said she thought of the idea six weeks ago when she was wiping down groceries for her sister, who was pregnant and has since given birth.“We were very concerned about her having her baby during COVID,” said Mincer. “And as a family we decided to implement a set of rules that everybody would follow and everyone would work together to keep this newborn safe.“Part of this was wiping down groceries with Lysol wipes, which is very stressful and tedious,” she said, “and actually gave me a lot of anxiety because I didn’t know if I was doing it right.”Mincer, 29, had read an ad for cleaning cellphones using UV light and she called her friend — and soon-to-be business partner — Dara Gallinger to float an idea using the same technology to inactivate the coronavirus on groceries.At the point when Mincer called, Gallinger was considering her future options and thought she might make a move into private equity. When she heard Mincer’s idea, though, “it sounded like the exact thing we should be doing now.”Within days, the two women had partnered with a small Cambridge company — Prescientx — which is developing UV machines to sanitize N95 masks so they can be reused instead of being thrown out after each use.Evidence shows the type of light used in the machine, called UV-C, disrupts the ability of DNA and RNA in viruses — including COVID-19 — to replicate, says Bill Anderson, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo, which means the virus can’t reproduce in the human body and cause harm.A one-day pilot of the technology at the Summerhill Market in the Annex last week proved successful, although the machine, built as a prototype for sanitizing masks in a hospital setting and not for use in retail, cost between $40,000 and $50,000 and proved too big for the end of a checkout counter in the store.Mincer and Gallinger are developing a much smaller, less powerful unit that can be integrated at the checkout counter. They say the machines will be ready to sell in 90 days, though they don’t know the cost yet.UV-C light can be harmful to humans and direct exposure can result in radiation burns like a sunburn. Because UV-C rearranges your DNA — which is one of the ways it stops the virus from replicating — it has the potential to generate cancer, said Anderson. But, he said that loading groceries into a unit like the one used at Summerhill Market is safe as long as the user is wearing plastic gloves to block the ultraviolet rays. “The machine has been built in a way that prevents any leakage. There’s no harm for anyone around the machine,” said Mincer. Also, unlike the machine used in the pilot, the unit that Mincer and Gallinger are developing will not require anyone to put their hand inside the area where the UV-C light is because the conveyor belt will start outside of the contained area and feed the groceries through.Although machines like the one tested by Mincer and Gallinger emit a bluish light, Anderson says the colour is a byproduct of how the lamps operate and UV-C can’t be perceived by the human eye.Gallinger said she and Mincer, who is a realtor, weren’t sure how interested people would be in using the technology, especially if they weren’t already wiping down their groceries with a disinfectant when they returned home.But she says the response was overwhelmingly positive.“Even people who are not wiping down their groceries said they would use this service if it was presented in stores,” said Gallinger, who, at 36, has already co-founded a business — Brodflour, a mill and bakery in Toronto — and sold it.At the Summerhill Market, the machine was set up at the end of a checkout counter and groceries were placed on a conveyor belt in the unit and run under the UV light for 30 seconds. General manager Matthew Rogge said the unit generated a lot of positive interest.Brad McMullen, company president of Summerhill Market, said the machine piloted was too big and powerful to be working in close quarters all day, but he’s considering testing it out in an off-site facility where online orders are processed.“We think those who order online would also be more likely to have an interest in sanitized groceries,” said McMullen in an email. “We are very interested in the grocery store model they are working towards which will be right sized for a store of our size and with a more accessible in and out platform for packing.”The coronavirus has triggered interest in using ultraviolet light as a disinfectant. New York Transit said on Friday that it was starting a pilot project using ultraviolet light lamps supplied by PURO Lighting to determine how efficient the technology is in killing COVID-19 on buses and trains and in stations.And McGill University’s Research Institute is testing a disinfectant robot, which it ordered from a Danish company near the start of the pandemic. UV-C light is known to kill microorganisms on surfaces and in the air, according to a press release from the institute, but this will be the first time the technology will be evaluated in Canada using an automated robot. Anderson, who has been researching ultraviolet light for 30 years, has advised Prescientx as well as many other companies on the technology but he has no vested interest in the business.He says that, in theory, UV-C should work the same way on the surfaces of boxes and packages of grocery store items that are being hit with a sufficient dose of the light as it does on other surfaces.“In research literature there hasn’t been a bacteria or virus that hasn’t been susceptible to UV-C,” said Anderson.Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: pwinsa@thestar.ca

24th, May 2020, 12:24pm

Ford ‘shocked’ by Trinity Bellwood crowds, urges restraint

Premier Doug Ford says he was “shocked” to see photos of the weekend crowds at Trinity Bellwoods Park and is pleading with Ontarians to avoid mass gatherings.Speaking at Queen’s Park on Sunday, Ford also said the province is ramping up testing and encouraged anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, or just worried they may have it, to get tested — even if they don’t have symptoms.“The images I saw (Saturday) from Trinity Bellwoods park in Toronto — I thought it was a rock concert at the beginning,” Ford said. “I was absolutely shocked.”He said: “I get it — it was a beautiful day out and everyone wants to get out and have a great time. I fully understand — that’s the reason we opened the parks, so that people can get out there and enjoy the weather.”However, Ford added, “the images I saw — we just can’t have that right now. It’s too many people, too close.”He reminded Ontarians that “there is still a deadly virus amongst us and if we allow it, it will spread — it will spread like wildfire.” Ford said testing is the “best defence.”The park was much quieter on Sunday, with more than a dozen bike officers and city bylaw enforcement staff patrolling. Ford has promised a new testing strategy aimed at workers on the job amid repeated criticisms from scientists and opposition parties that government has not tested broadly enough as more businesses reopen and new cases rise.He has also been under fire because the province has used less than half its available lab capacity to process tests in the last week — meaning about 54,000 more could have been tested to get a more accurate picture of the virus.The shortfall continued Saturday when 11,383 samples were processed at a network of public health, hospital and commercial labs than can handle more than 20,000 samples day.A number of epidemiologists have been pressing the government to test people with “occupational risk” of exposure, such as grocery clerks.Ford has been pleading with Ontarians to get tested at assessment centres, which until a week ago were rejecting people with mild or moderate symptoms.Testing dropped off last weekend after a blitz of residents and staff in nursing homes was completed, and critics said the government did not have a plan in place to fill the void.Ontario’s chief medical officer said Friday that he was concerned about issuing a plea at that time and having labs swamped, creating a backlog of tests that would make it harder to track the virus.“It became clear we should be utilizing that capacity,” said Dr. David Williams. “The capacity is now available.”Ford said Sunday that no one will be denied a test.“If you are worried you have COVID-19, or that you’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 — even if you’re not showing symptoms — please go get a test. You will not be turned away.”However, he also warned that “even if you receive a negative test result, it doesn’t mean you’re clear. You can still be exposed to the virus. So please continue to monitor your health. Watch for symptoms, and get tested again if you see symptoms or you’re worried about exposure.”With files from Robert BenzieKristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

24th, May 2020, 11:13pm

Say goodbye to the traditional buffet, at least for now

My memories as a kid growing up in the ’90s can be summed up by buffets. My grandparents’ birthdays would be marked by trips to China Buffet King (RIP), Mr. Wong’s (RIP) or Mandarin. There was also JJ Mugs (RIP) at the Eaton Centre and Woodbine Mall, which initially confused me, because I didn’t know buffets served non-Chinese food.I threw up at a friends’ birthday party held at the Sizzler, and I also threw up after meeting Mickey Mouse at a buffet in Disney World. The first time I had Indian food was at a Little India buffet. My partner and I celebrated his PhD by going to the Mandarin two years ago.My buffet memories will stop there for now.Self-serve options, from buffets to drink stations to salad bars, aren’t part of reopening plans for restaurants muddling through the COVID-19 pandemic. The thought of diners moving around the dining room, hovering over trays of food, grabbing plates from the same pile and sharing serving utensils is unfathomable, especially in Ontario, where the number of coronvirus cases continues to rise, notwithstanding a phased plan to end the lockdown. Plus, with food waste and insecurity on people’s minds, many are taking time to rethink the whole idea of all-you-can eat in the traditional sense. Shraey Gulati and his family own Tandoori Flame, a small empire of Indian buffet restaurants in Brampton, Mississauga and Surrey, BC. They tout Tandoori as North America’s largest Indian buffet with more than 150 items. Gulati is in Surrey to oversee the partial reopening of that location on June 1, as British Columbia allowed dining rooms to reopen at limited capacity earlier this month. Buffets still aren’t allowed, so Gulati is reformatting the restaurant. It will be a test run for the other two restaurants in Ontario.“We tried to search what other cities have been doing, but there hasn’t been a clear indication yet, so we have to essentially brainstorm ourselves,” Gulati says over the phone.He says management came up with two possibilities: one being cafeteria service, in which diners are handed a plate and go up to one of the 12 food stations, where an attendant serves them food. The drawback to that is how to ensure guests will be able to stand two metres apart without intruding on others in the dining room.The other, more likely, scenario is to have diners order unlimited food from their table, a format most diners would already be familiar with at all-you-can-eat sushi spots. Guests order from a pared down menu, likely between 50-70 items, from their table and a server brings the food to them on platters. Gulati says they’re also working to enable diners to get the menu as well as pay from their phones to minimize contact.Still, the common sentiment from restaurant owners is that reopening a dining room at half capacity won’t generate enough revenue. That’s especially true for buffets that occupy massive spaces (and with that, have massive operating costs). Tandoori Flame’s locations are around 10,000 square feet. The buffet stations occupy a fifth of that.Since a buffet charges a flat rate, it relies on having a full room and a high customer turnover. For every voracious diner that tries to game the system by only eating high-cost items such as seafood, there needs to be people that don’t eat as much or fill up on bread and pasta.“We probably won’t be going back to the traditional format until the end of 2020 or next year, but the most vital thing is to have our 450-seat capacity back,” says Gulati. He adds that while the new format will reduce food costs and waste, the money saved would be going to additional staff to bring food to the table.Anthony Matiya, whose family runs the two locations of Jerusalem Middle Eastern restaurants, the one in North York being a buffet operation since 2000, is also considering a similar model of having diners ordering from the table.“I always liked the model at dim sum and sushi restaurants because it helps control waste,” he says. “Serving as you go helps lower the costs, which helps considering everything else is going up. It’s the only way I can see it working.”Despite already spending thousands last summer to renovate the buffet area, changes are necessary when they reopen, Matiya says.“The traditional buffet model is done, not because it didn’t work in the past. The guidelines they want to put in place doesn’t allow for it to operate,” he says. “Will people wear masks and gloves at the buffet? Are sneeze guards enough? Can we change the utensils every time someone uses it? All it takes is one person to ruin it, especially if a person is asymptomatic. No matter what steps you put in place, there is always uncertainty.”As for Ontario’s most popular buffet chain, Mandarin, a spokesperson says it’s too early to announce what it plans to do when the dining room reopens, and that the restaurants are focusing on takeout right now.Switching to an order-as-you-go model could be a good thing. After all, who amongst us hasn’t tried to create a metre-tall mountain of soft serve just because we could? With food costs rising and the public being more aware of food insecurity, some restaurant owners are wondering if the old buffet is worth bringing back at all.“You’ll be shocked at how much goes uneaten,” says Ling Lee’s Chinese Cuisine owner Norina Karschti, whose parents opened the restaurant atop a curling club in Thunder Bay in 1973. “You’ll see someone take five egg rolls but only eat two, or know that the price of pork loin went up but you can’t charge people more for it. It’s sad to see, because we make things from scratch.”She estimates about a third of the food at the buffet goes uneaten and with the ingredients costing 38 per cent of what she charges, she doesn’t see it as a money-maker. Last year, she cut down lunchtime buffet service from four days a week down to two, relying more on takeout, catering and á-la-carte service. When restaurants are allowed to reopen in Ontario, she’s not sure if it’s worth starting the buffet again. “I don’t see my buffet opening up in the near future without a vaccine (for COVID-19) …. I think there’s a handful of us being happy that it’s being done. There is less labour and staffing with buffets, but the food costs are huge.”It’s hard to shake the gluttonous image of the modern buffet considering its origins.The Las Vegas Sun credits the late publicist Herb McDonald with coming up with the idea of the all-you-can-eat buffet back in 1946 when he was working for the El Rancho Vegas hotel. McDonald brought out cheese and meats from the kitchen and laid them out on the bar to make a sandwich, catching the attention of hungry gamblers who wanted in on the spread.Other casinos followed. At first, it was a way to lure gamblers with unlimited cheap food (hello, $1-Salisbury steaks!) but as Vegas became more family-friendly, the buffets became attractions themselves. The 600-seat, aptly named Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace opened in 2012 with a budget of $100 million and served a million people within its first year.A few buffets tried to curb the “all-you-can-eat” mantra in recent years. An executive chef of the American buffet chain Sizzlers told the defunct food magazine Lucky Peach in 2014 that they prefer to call it “all-you-care-to-eat” so that diners don’t see it as a challenge to overeat.But the buffet represents more than flashy excess. In her 2019 book Chop Suey Nation, journalist Ann Hui writes about the Chinese restaurant-turned-buffet her parents owned in Abbotsford as well as places such as Ling Lee’s Chinese Cuisine in Thunder Bay.“For a lot of Canadians, the buffet was the introduction of Chinese food,” says Hui, adding that in Canada, it was Montreal restaurateur Bill Wong who popularized the all-you-can-eat concept with his namesake restaurant in 1963. “At that time, going out to eat was a special occasion and restaurants offered an experience. That’s why Chinese restaurants were popular: it was a new experience that people couldn’t have at home.”The buffet in particular was an extra novelty, says Hui. Just as my first time trying Indian food was at a buffet, diners unfamiliar with Chinese food first got their taste at these restaurants. “You approach the buffet and pick what looked good,” she says. “You didn’t have to ask questions or know what it was on the menu. It was a perfect entry point for people and made the food more approachable.”Despite its cultural importance, the old buffet model isn’t coming back any time soon. California-based Sweet Tomatoes permantely closed all of its 97 buffet locations this month. American chain Golden Corral adopted the cafeteria-style service. Royal Caribbean Cruise announced there won’t be buffets when the initial fleet of ships sail again. One Indian spot in California plans on swapping its buffet for thalis, a common way of serving a variety of curries, vegetables, meat and rice on a large, individual platter.As for the birthplace of the modern buffet, casino owners in Las Vegas don’t see them as part of the early stages of reopening either. Two casino CEOs, Frank Fertitta III and Tom Reeg, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that buffets aren’t traditionally money-makers for casinos and the costs of running them, in addition to the increased sanitation costs, aren’t worth it.While traditional buffets aren’t as common in the GTA as they once were (note how many of the ones I went to as a kid aren’t around anymore), they continue to exist in another form as salad bars and hot tables at supermarkets.Longo’s salad bars have been turned into spaces that sell packaged meals and produce, says Joey Bernaudo, senior director of merchandising for the supermarket chain. He’s hesitant to say whether this is the end of buffet-style service, and says the company will follow whatever health experts dictate.James Rilett, vice president of the central Canada region of industry group Restaurants Canada, says that he’s seen more restaurants move to the prepare-as-you-order model of all-you-can-eat restaurants before the pandemic hit.For now, restaurants are in survival mode and trying to stay open, serving food in whatever format that is considered safe.“At least in the short term, everything will look and feel different, but we’re a resilient industry,” he says. “Whether restaurants can reopen is the bigger issue. When they do, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”Karon Liu is a Toronto-based culture reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu

24th, May 2020, 08:00pm

From following orders to calculating the risks: Why post-lockdown decisions feel overwhelming

Suddenly, in this unfamiliar COVID-19 world, we’ve got some decisions to make. The questions vary depending on where we live: Is it safe to give our moms and grandmas a hug? Should we accept that invitation to a backyard barbecue? Can we go visit our favourite clothing store? Is it OK to have a picnic in Toronto’s busy Trinity Bellwoods Park or go play a round of golf?Things seemed so much simpler a couple weeks ago, didn’t they?Government messaging seemed clear: Stay home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance in the checkout line.Easy.But now, the easing of restrictions has ushered in a new, uncertain normal filled with more wiggle room and personal discretion — where one misstep could affect us, our loved ones and our communities. “The onus of risk management has now shifted from the government to you as an individual,” Ross Otto, a psychology professor at McGill University, told me this week. “I think that’s where you’re going to start to see more variability in the way people manage risk, because it’s now in their hands.”Not everybody feels equipped to make these decisions, looking instead to governments for guidance. In turn, some academics suggest it’s not enough for governments to rely on scientific experts alone for pandemic planning. They need to include regular, everyday people in the deliberations, not dissimilar to courtroom juries.In the meantime, some have embraced the loosening of lockdown measures. Take my colleague Jeremy Nuttall, who was among the first in line to get a haircut this week. “I feel like a human again,” he told me after getting his unruly locks lopped off by his stylist, who wore a mask and visor.Others, like awkward kids at a high school dance, have chosen to remain on the sidelines. That was me this week when I chickened out of making an appointment for my own desperately needed haircut. Part of my reservation stemmed from my recent conversation with Katrina Shelast, owner of a boutique hair salon, Grow Conscious Hair Co., in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Though salons here are allowed to reopen, she’s in no hurry.“Nobody’s hair is more important than anybody’s health or their life,” she said, adding the father of one of her co-workers died after becoming infected.As much as she wants to get back to work, Shelast, who has a lung condition, wants to make sure she has proper protocols in place.“This is one of the first times in my life I feel like I’m not eager to be the first person to do something.”This week, she posed a question to clients on Facebook, asking if they’d be OK foregoing blow-drying services “knowing that blow-dryers will move air and particles more easily.”Most said they were fine with it. Otto doesn’t blame people for feeling overwhelmed.“Everything we know is pre-pandemic. There are these new areas of risk that one didn’t think of before.” Of course, not everything has been left to our own devices. Government bureaucrats and industry groups have recently prescribed — sometimes exhaustively — myriad ways to mitigate risk in online playbooks.In Ontario, golf courses have been advised to leave flagsticks in place and to elevate cups at each hole so the ball doesn’t drop into the hole, according to guidelines from the province’s Workplace Safety and Prevention Services. “Play is concluded when the ball makes contact with the cup.”In Alberta, guidelines stipulate restaurants should remove table condiments, such as salt and pepper, and consider “keeping music to a low volume to help customers avoid leaning in to hear each other.”Meanwhile, the requirement that B.C. restaurants record contact information from one person at each table to make it easier to notify people in the event someone tests positive was too intrusive, some critics said.In Washington State, the outcry against a similar measure was even louder. “Why is the onus on the restaurant to be a secretary for the government?” Jason Rantz, a Seattle radio host, wrote online.The measure was subsequently retracted and made voluntary.In B.C., where K-12 students will be able to return to classrooms on a part-time and strictly voluntary basis on June 1, the Vancouver School Board has outlined a number of “physical distancing strategies.”One reads: “Students will be reminded to avoid close greetings (e.g., hugs, high-fives, handshakes, etc.)” “Students will be reminded about keeping their ‘hands to yourself,’ ” says another.Some Quebec and B.C. parents have circulated online petitions saying the partial reopenings of schools in their provinces is too soon.“I absolutely don’t want my kids to be guinea pigs,” wrote one mother in the Quebec petition, which has close to 300,000 signatures.The B.C. petition, signed by more than 22,000 people, states that children K-5 are just “too young to carry the social responsibility to effectively sanitize themselves for the health & safety of others.”“The shortest route to our second wave is to send our children back to school.”That hesitation was echoed in a new poll out this week by Research Co. More than half of British Columbians said they wouldn’t attend a live sporting event (61 per cent) or a music venue (59 per cent) until there was a vaccine. And 43 per cent said they weren’t comfortable taking a bus until there was a vaccine. While there are still some pockets of protest against the curtailing of freedoms, a friend told me on WhatsApp that she’d be more comfortable with more explicit rules from government — enough leaving things up to individuals.“I WANT A DRACONIAN GOVERNMENT RIGHT NOW.”Melissa Williams, a University of Toronto political science professor, said she wasn’t surprised.“There is a temptation in times of crisis to revert to top-down, authoritarian styles of governance. Your friend’s wish for a ‘draconian government’ is understandable because the pandemic presents a collective action problem in the classic sense: Policies can’t be effective unless the vast majority of people comply with them. This is as true of economic reopening as it is of physical distancing.”But there are real tradeoffs, Williams said, and “in a democracy we should try to agree upon them in a democratic way.” But how to reach a consensus when points of view are so diverse? This week, NHL star Taylor Hall, who had just started playing for the Arizona Coyotes when the season shut down in March, told NBC Sports from his home in Toronto he was eager to get back on the ice.“I’m comfortable taking a risk and coming back to play,” he told the network. “I think we take risks every day with what we do, and I think certainly there are risks involved with everything going on. But I’d be willing to put that aside and hopefully play hockey again this year.”But Hubert Leung, a physiotherapist in Toronto, who’s still waiting for the province and College of Physiotherapists of Ontario to give the green light to reopen clinics, said “rushing things is the last thing we want.” Leung acknowledged he’s getting a bit antsy — especially with clinics opening in other provinces — as virtual sessions are just not the same. In Ontario, the number of COVID-19 cases is trending upward again. “I’d love to get started, but will open only if I feel it’s safe,” he said.A group of academics in B.C. and Ontario has an idea for how governments can find the sweet spot between protecting health and economic recovery: Talk to regular people. In the coming days, they will host a series of “online public deliberations” with B.C. residents to gauge which pandemic measures they’re willing to live with and which ones they’re not. Recommendations flowing from these discussions will be forwarded to the B.C. government. Team member Kieran O’Doherty, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, said this is believed to be the first initiative of its kind in Canada since the start of the pandemic. “You let COVID run wild, you’re going to have one particular group suffer with more illness and more death. You lockdown really tight, some of the people who would’ve been sick are going to be saved, but some people can’t work or lose their livelihood,” he said. “The decisions the government makes have very real and very differential effects in the Canadian population. So the argument is whenever a decision like that is made by the state, democratic principles say people should have input on those decisions.” The first sessions will focus on the controversial use of contact tracing apps on phones, which can be used to show travel patterns and identify potential coronavirus clusters. The plan, he said, is to get a diverse group of people in a virtual room, have them share how the pandemic has affected them and try to reach a consensus on the best response. The hope is this will yield a richer discussion than if it was a bunch of bureaucrats around a table. “Most (bureaucrats) probably haven’t had their pay cut. So they wouldn’t have that perspective. Can they empathize sufficiently to understand how somebody would feel going through that? Maybe. But ... most of us working in this field would say, ‘No, that is not a sufficiently diverse set of perspectives.’ ”Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan

24th, May 2020, 06:00pm

From following orders to calculating the risks: Why our post-lockdown decisions feel overwhelming

Suddenly, in this unfamiliar COVID-19 world, we’ve got some decisions to make. The questions vary depending on where we live: Is it safe to give our moms and grandmas a hug? Should we accept that invitation to a backyard barbecue? Can we go visit our favourite clothing store? Is it OK to have a picnic in Toronto’s busy Trinity Bellwoods Park or go play a round of golf?Things seemed so much simpler a couple weeks ago, didn’t they?Government messaging seemed clear: Stay home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance in the checkout line.Easy.But now, the easing of restrictions has ushered in a new, uncertain normal filled with more wiggle room and personal discretion — where one misstep could affect us, our loved ones and our communities. “The onus of risk management has now shifted from the government to you as an individual,” Ross Otto, a psychology professor at McGill University, told me. “I think that’s where you’re going to start to see more variability in the way people manage risk, because it’s now in their hands.”Not everybody feels equipped to make these decisions, looking instead to governments for guidance. In turn, some academics suggest it’s not enough for governments to rely on scientific experts alone for pandemic planning. They need to include regular, everyday people in the deliberations, not dissimilar to courtroom juries.In the meantime, some have embraced the loosening of lockdown measures. Take my colleague Jeremy Nuttall, who was among the first in line to get a haircut last week. “I feel like a human again,” he told me after getting his unruly locks lopped off by his stylist, who wore a mask and visor.Others, like awkward kids at a high school dance, have chosen to remain on the sidelines. That was me when I chickened out of making an appointment for my own desperately needed haircut. Part of my reservation stemmed from my recent conversation with Katrina Shelast, owner of a boutique hair salon, Grow Conscious Hair Co., in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Though salons here are allowed to reopen in B.C., she’s in no hurry.“Nobody’s hair is more important than anybody’s health or their life,” she said, adding the father of one of her co-workers died after becoming infected.As much as she wants to get back to work, Shelast, who has a lung condition, wants to make sure she has proper protocols in place.“This is one of the first times in my life I feel like I’m not eager to be the first person to do something.”A few days ago, she posed a question to clients on Facebook, asking if they’d be OK foregoing blow-drying services “knowing that blow-dryers will move air and particles more easily.”Most said they were fine with it. Otto doesn’t blame people for feeling overwhelmed.“Everything we know is pre-pandemic. There are these new areas of risk that one didn’t think of before.” Of course, not everything has been left to our own devices. Government bureaucrats and industry groups have recently prescribed — sometimes exhaustively — myriad ways to mitigate risk in online playbooks.In Ontario, golf courses have been advised to leave flagsticks in place and to elevate cups at each hole so the ball doesn’t drop into the hole, according to guidelines from the province’s Workplace Safety and Prevention Services. “Play is concluded when the ball makes contact with the cup.”In Alberta, guidelines stipulate restaurants should remove table condiments, such as salt and pepper, and consider “keeping music to a low volume to help customers avoid leaning in to hear each other.”Meanwhile, the requirement that B.C. restaurants record contact information from one person at each table to make it easier to notify people in the event someone tests positive was too intrusive, some critics said.In Washington State, the outcry against a similar measure was even louder. “Why is the onus on the restaurant to be a secretary for the government?” Jason Rantz, a Seattle radio host, wrote online.The measure was subsequently retracted and made voluntary.In B.C., where K-12 students will be able to return to classrooms on a part-time and strictly voluntary basis on June 1, the Vancouver School Board has outlined a number of “physical distancing strategies.”One reads: “Students will be reminded to avoid close greetings (e.g., hugs, high-fives, handshakes, etc.)” “Students will be reminded about keeping their ‘hands to yourself,’ ” says another.Some Quebec and B.C. parents have circulated online petitions saying the partial reopenings of schools in their provinces is too soon.“I absolutely don’t want my kids to be guinea pigs,” wrote one mother in the Quebec petition, which has close to 300,000 signatures.The B.C. petition, signed by more than 22,000 people, states that children K-5 are just “too young to carry the social responsibility to effectively sanitize themselves for the health & safety of others.”“The shortest route to our second wave is to send our children back to school.”That hesitation was echoed in a new poll out this week by Research Co. More than half of British Columbians said they wouldn’t attend a live sporting event (61 per cent) or a music venue (59 per cent) until there was a vaccine. And 43 per cent said they weren’t comfortable taking a bus until there was a vaccine. While there are still some pockets of protest against the curtailing of freedoms, a friend told me on WhatsApp that she’d be more comfortable with more explicit rules from government — enough leaving things up to individuals.“I WANT A DRACONIAN GOVERNMENT RIGHT NOW.”Melissa Williams, a University of Toronto political science professor, said she wasn’t surprised.“There is a temptation in times of crisis to revert to top-down, authoritarian styles of governance. Your friend’s wish for a ‘draconian government’ is understandable because the pandemic presents a collective action problem in the classic sense: Policies can’t be effective unless the vast majority of people comply with them. This is as true of economic reopening as it is of physical distancing.”But there are real tradeoffs, Williams said, and “in a democracy we should try to agree upon them in a democratic way.” But how to reach a consensus when points of view are so diverse? NHL star Taylor Hall, who had just started playing for the Arizona Coyotes when the season shut down in March, told NBC Sports from his home in Toronto recently he was eager to get back on the ice.“I’m comfortable taking a risk and coming back to play,” he told the network. “I think we take risks every day with what we do, and I think certainly there are risks involved with everything going on. But I’d be willing to put that aside and hopefully play hockey again this year.”But Hubert Leung, a physiotherapist in Toronto, who’s still waiting for the province and College of Physiotherapists of Ontario to give the green light to reopen clinics, said “rushing things is the last thing we want.” Leung acknowledged he’s getting a bit antsy — especially with clinics opening in other provinces — as virtual sessions are just not the same. In Ontario, the number of COVID-19 cases is trending upward again. “I’d love to get started, but will open only if I feel it’s safe,” he said.A group of academics in B.C. and Ontario has an idea for how governments can find the sweet spot between protecting health and economic recovery: Talk to regular people. In the coming days, they will host a series of “online public deliberations” with B.C. residents to gauge which pandemic measures they’re willing to live with and which ones they’re not. Recommendations flowing from these discussions will be forwarded to the B.C. government. Team member Kieran O’Doherty, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, said this is believed to be the first initiative of its kind in Canada since the start of the pandemic. “You let COVID run wild, you’re going to have one particular group suffer with more illness and more death. You lockdown really tight, some of the people who would’ve been sick are going to be saved, but some people can’t work or lose their livelihood,” he said. “The decisions the government makes have very real and very differential effects in the Canadian population. So the argument is whenever a decision like that is made by the state, democratic principles say people should have input on those decisions.” The first sessions will focus on the controversial use of contact tracing apps on phones, which can be used to show travel patterns and identify potential coronavirus clusters. The plan, he said, is to get a diverse group of people in a virtual room, have them share how the pandemic has affected them and try to reach a consensus on the best response. The hope is this will yield a richer discussion than if it was a bunch of bureaucrats around a table. “Most (bureaucrats) probably haven’t had their pay cut. So they wouldn’t have that perspective. Can they empathize sufficiently to understand how somebody would feel going through that? Maybe. But ... most of us working in this field would say, ‘No, that is not a sufficiently diverse set of perspectives.’ ”Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan

24th, May 2020, 06:00pm

Feeling overwhelmed by your decisions as the lockdown lifts? You're not alone

Suddenly, in this unfamiliar COVID-19 world, we’ve got some decisions to make. The questions vary depending on where we live: Is it safe to give our moms and grandmas a hug? Should we accept that invitation to a backyard barbecue? Can we go visit our favourite clothing store? Is it OK to have a picnic in Toronto’s busy Trinity Bellwoods Park or go play a round of golf?Things seemed so much simpler a couple weeks ago, didn’t they?Government messaging seemed clear: Stay home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance in the checkout line.Easy.But now, the easing of restrictions has ushered in a new, uncertain normal filled with more wiggle room and personal discretion — where one misstep could affect us, our loved ones and our communities. “The onus of risk management has now shifted from the government to you as an individual,” Ross Otto, a psychology professor at McGill University, told me. “I think that’s where you’re going to start to see more variability in the way people manage risk, because it’s now in their hands.”Not everybody feels equipped to make these decisions, looking instead to governments for guidance. In turn, some academics suggest it’s not enough for governments to rely on scientific experts alone for pandemic planning. They need to include regular, everyday people in the deliberations, not dissimilar to courtroom juries.In the meantime, some have embraced the loosening of lockdown measures. Take my colleague Jeremy Nuttall, who was among the first in line to get a haircut last week. “I feel like a human again,” he told me after getting his unruly locks lopped off by his stylist, who wore a mask and visor.Others, like awkward kids at a high school dance, have chosen to remain on the sidelines. That was me when I chickened out of making an appointment for my own desperately needed haircut. Part of my reservation stemmed from my recent conversation with Katrina Shelast, owner of a boutique hair salon, Grow Conscious Hair Co., in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Though salons here are allowed to reopen in B.C., she’s in no hurry.“Nobody’s hair is more important than anybody’s health or their life,” she said, adding the father of one of her co-workers died after becoming infected.As much as she wants to get back to work, Shelast, who has a lung condition, wants to make sure she has proper protocols in place.“This is one of the first times in my life I feel like I’m not eager to be the first person to do something.”A few days ago, she posed a question to clients on Facebook, asking if they’d be OK foregoing blow-drying services “knowing that blow-dryers will move air and particles more easily.”Most said they were fine with it. Otto doesn’t blame people for feeling overwhelmed.“Everything we know is pre-pandemic. There are these new areas of risk that one didn’t think of before.” Of course, not everything has been left to our own devices. Government bureaucrats and industry groups have recently prescribed — sometimes exhaustively — myriad ways to mitigate risk in online playbooks.In Ontario, golf courses have been advised to leave flagsticks in place and to elevate cups at each hole so the ball doesn’t drop into the hole, according to guidelines from the province’s Workplace Safety and Prevention Services. “Play is concluded when the ball makes contact with the cup.”In Alberta, guidelines stipulate restaurants should remove table condiments, such as salt and pepper, and consider “keeping music to a low volume to help customers avoid leaning in to hear each other.”Meanwhile, the requirement that B.C. restaurants record contact information from one person at each table to make it easier to notify people in the event someone tests positive was too intrusive, some critics said.In Washington State, the outcry against a similar measure was even louder. “Why is the onus on the restaurant to be a secretary for the government?” Jason Rantz, a Seattle radio host, wrote online.The measure was subsequently retracted and made voluntary.In B.C., where K-12 students will be able to return to classrooms on a part-time and strictly voluntary basis on June 1, the Vancouver School Board has outlined a number of “physical distancing strategies.”One reads: “Students will be reminded to avoid close greetings (e.g., hugs, high-fives, handshakes, etc.)” “Students will be reminded about keeping their ‘hands to yourself,’ ” says another.Some Quebec and B.C. parents have circulated online petitions saying the partial reopenings of schools in their provinces is too soon.“I absolutely don’t want my kids to be guinea pigs,” wrote one mother in the Quebec petition, which has close to 300,000 signatures.The B.C. petition, signed by more than 22,000 people, states that children K-5 are just “too young to carry the social responsibility to effectively sanitize themselves for the health & safety of others.”“The shortest route to our second wave is to send our children back to school.”That hesitation was echoed in a new poll out this week by Research Co. More than half of British Columbians said they wouldn’t attend a live sporting event (61 per cent) or a music venue (59 per cent) until there was a vaccine. And 43 per cent said they weren’t comfortable taking a bus until there was a vaccine. While there are still some pockets of protest against the curtailing of freedoms, a friend told me on WhatsApp that she’d be more comfortable with more explicit rules from government — enough leaving things up to individuals.“I WANT A DRACONIAN GOVERNMENT RIGHT NOW.”Melissa Williams, a University of Toronto political science professor, said she wasn’t surprised.“There is a temptation in times of crisis to revert to top-down, authoritarian styles of governance. Your friend’s wish for a ‘draconian government’ is understandable because the pandemic presents a collective action problem in the classic sense: Policies can’t be effective unless the vast majority of people comply with them. This is as true of economic reopening as it is of physical distancing.”But there are real tradeoffs, Williams said, and “in a democracy we should try to agree upon them in a democratic way.” But how to reach a consensus when points of view are so diverse? NHL star Taylor Hall, who had just started playing for the Arizona Coyotes when the season shut down in March, told NBC Sports from his home in Toronto recently he was eager to get back on the ice.“I’m comfortable taking a risk and coming back to play,” he told the network. “I think we take risks every day with what we do, and I think certainly there are risks involved with everything going on. But I’d be willing to put that aside and hopefully play hockey again this year.”But Hubert Leung, a physiotherapist in Toronto, who’s still waiting for the province and College of Physiotherapists of Ontario to give the green light to reopen clinics, said “rushing things is the last thing we want.” Leung acknowledged he’s getting a bit antsy — especially with clinics opening in other provinces — as virtual sessions are just not the same. In Ontario, the number of COVID-19 cases is trending upward again. “I’d love to get started, but will open only if I feel it’s safe,” he said.A group of academics in B.C. and Ontario has an idea for how governments can find the sweet spot between protecting health and economic recovery: Talk to regular people. In the coming days, they will host a series of “online public deliberations” with B.C. residents to gauge which pandemic measures they’re willing to live with and which ones they’re not. Recommendations flowing from these discussions will be forwarded to the B.C. government. Team member Kieran O’Doherty, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, said this is believed to be the first initiative of its kind in Canada since the start of the pandemic. “You let COVID run wild, you’re going to have one particular group suffer with more illness and more death. You lockdown really tight, some of the people who would’ve been sick are going to be saved, but some people can’t work or lose their livelihood,” he said. “The decisions the government makes have very real and very differential effects in the Canadian population. So the argument is whenever a decision like that is made by the state, democratic principles say people should have input on those decisions.” The first sessions will focus on the controversial use of contact tracing apps on phones, which can be used to show travel patterns and identify potential coronavirus clusters. The plan, he said, is to get a diverse group of people in a virtual room, have them share how the pandemic has affected them and try to reach a consensus on the best response. The hope is this will yield a richer discussion than if it was a bunch of bureaucrats around a table. “Most (bureaucrats) probably haven’t had their pay cut. So they wouldn’t have that perspective. Can they empathize sufficiently to understand how somebody would feel going through that? Maybe. But ... most of us working in this field would say, ‘No, that is not a sufficiently diverse set of perspectives.’ ”Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan

24th, May 2020, 06:00pm

How a haven for refugees became home to the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Toronto’s shelter system

In March, staff at Willowdale Welcome Centre, which would become the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the city’s shelter system, grew concerned about infection control at the facility.The refugee centre had opened in the fall. It housed about 200 men and women on separate floors, many of them professionals from Uganda and Nigeria seeking a better life in Canada. It was soon operating seamlessly and clients quickly found housing and jobs. “Once the shelter had its roots in place, it was pretty well-run. I was impressed,” said an employee who is not being named because he is worried about his future employment. As March progressed, concerns about COVID-19 transmission grew — concerns which the employee and others at Homes First Society, the registered charity that operates Willowdale, felt were not being heard by management. This account is based on interviews with staff at Willowdale and other shelters at Homes First; on e-mails between employees and management and official complaints made to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.Staff at the shelter were being told not to wear masks — not unusual in the early days of the pandemic, when the focus was on preserving supply for front-line workers and as research suggested masks provided limited defence against the virus outside of health-care settings. Staff were told to focus on proper handwashing and increased cleaning with disinfectants. But Lysol wipes, used to clean tables in the cafeteria between services, quickly went missing and were not replaced.Responding to questions from the Star, Patricia Mueller, Homes First’s chief executive officer, said the charity followed public health guidelines at all times when it came to infection control measures, including personal protective equipment for employees.Meanwhile, the outbreak is now over at the shelter, Mueller said, as no active cases remain.In the beginning, the Willowdale employee said, it was difficult to get the shelter’s clientele — most of them 40 or younger — to consistently abide by the rules of social distancing and to follow the detailed recommendations related to handwashing and other measures. “Younger ones said, ‘I’m not going to die,’” said the employee. Many clients were diligent. Others were not.The employee had heard, for example, that even after the city banned gatherings of more than five people, some refugees at the centre continued to attend church services — meeting in private residences. “We have a friend’s house that is running it,” one of them told the employee.It was while he was watching a newscast from New York City, fast becoming an international hot spot for the virus, that the employee made his decision. “It made me realize we were on the same trajectory and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” said the employee. He quit soon thereafter and hasn’t been back.He remains healthy. Meanwhile, more than two dozen of his former co-workers and more than 180 clients at Willowdale have been diagnosed with COVID-19.“I have really close friends who got it. My heart breaks for them,” he said.The Willowdale outbreak highlights the challenges of fighting COVID-19 in a congregate setting — anywhere people are grouped together indoors — and how a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach can go awry. The refugee centre became the location with the highest number of infections in the city’s shelter system, which includes 72 locations. As of Wednesday, 185 clients had tested positive for COVID-19, and more than a dozen staff. No one has died.At one point, the large number of clients at Willowdale being moved into COVID-19 recovery sites set up by the city raised concerns that there would be no room for clients from other shelters at the recovery centres. So Willowdale was itself turned into a recovery centre, and medical personnel were brought to the shelter to attend to clients there, Mueller said. Four Homes First workers who were interviewed for this story, including two who worked at Willowdale, say things would not have gotten so bad if their early concerns had been addressed in a timely fashion. They are not being identified because they are fearful of being fired or not being rehired. “Homes First dropped the ball on guarding against the disease,” according to a statement from Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union representing workers there. Homes First Society lists 18 properties on its website, offering shelter ranging from single rooms for single men to townhouses for families. According to an email exchange provided to the Star, union representatives at Homes First shelters began discussing the need to talk to management about safer working conditions on March 15. They spoke to human resources on March 19 and Mueller on March 23. Their fears proved prescient: After scanning the news and medical literature for what was going on in other parts of the world, they asked for measures that would soon come to be regarded as routine, including maintaining a two-metre distance in shelters, ending the practice of allowing staff to work at more than one location, and face masks.They tried to escalate their concerns in some cases, taking their complaints to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. A spokesperson for the ministry said it investigated complaints regarding PPE at three Homes First locations in March and April, including Willowdale.A ministry inspector investigated by phone and no orders or requirements were issued. “It was determined that all appropriate guidelines were being followed and no orders were issued,” according to the ministry.An employee at Willowdale who spoke to the Star was diagnosed with COVID-19 and became so ill she thought she would die.In the early days of the pandemic, she said she was told by management that she could wear a mask if she liked, but she had to provide them herself — and at that time, masks were impossible to buy in stores.Initially, there were Lysol wipes on the lunch tables to keep the surfaces clean between shifts, but they were removed because management said they were being stolen.After that, the wipes were locked in offices, the employee said.There were sinks with soap and paper towels, where people could wash their hands before sitting down to eat, but they’d sometimes run out of paper towels, she added. Staying the recommended two metres away from clients was difficult because of the layout of the shelter, she added. The lobby is where the intake office is located and the security desk, and it’s where people would line up for the cafeteria. People were constantly criss-crossing paths.“It’s a pretty small bottleneck,” she said. Mueller agrees there were issues around supplies, including Lysol and paper towels — in some cases they were being stolen, in some cases overused, she said, and it took a while to figure out how to address that. Another concern for staff at Homes First was the high rotation among staff between homes, according to a third employee, who asked to remain nameless.Homes First employs about 300 people, including about 175 relief staff who used to move between facilities, Mueller said. She said that after the meeting between staff and management on March 23, Homes First began taking steps to end the practice, but it took several weeks to accomplish.“I’m with them, I would have wanted it done faster,” Mueller said. She added that it simply wasn’t possible to manage the change more quickly. Before the pandemic began, there were more than 7,000 people in Toronto’s shelter system, including nearly 3,000 in hotels and family settings, according to the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. The city operates 11 shelter and respite locations; 61 are operated by community non-profit agencies like Homes First.In order to increase social distancing, SSHA began moving people within existing programs on March 18, according to SSHA general manager Mary-Anne Bedard.By the end of April, 1,400 shelter clients had been moved. The figure now tops 2,000, Bedard said in an interview.Activists have criticized the city for not moving enough clients quickly enough, and for moving some to community centres, which don’t provide enough opportunities for social distancing or isolating people who begin showing symptoms. A group of activists sued the city, which, as part of an interim settlement, agreed to meet physical distancing targets at all homeless shelters. Bedard said community centres were chosen because they were easy to convert quickly.“I know there is criticism out there, but I am confident that we’ve done everything as quickly as we could,” Bedard said.While masks were provided to shelter staff in March, there was significant concern about the availability of PPE, and the pressure was on not to use valuable stock if it didn’t have to be used, she added. She said SSHA doesn’t yet understand why there were outbreaks at some shelters and not others.She warned that the numbers of infected at shelters will continue to rise.“There’s good reason for that — because we are doing more testing,” she said.If all the recommendations put forth by Willowdale staff early in the pandemic had been put into place, would the outcome have been different?Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto and Toronto General Hospital, who has also worked with Willowdale, said masks may have made a small difference.“The masks aren’t perfect — it’s not like you’re sealing the secretions from leaving your face — these are porous masks and you can still contaminate surfaces around you. Masks are helpful in these settings, but they aren’t the saviour,” he said. Listening to front-line workers is critical, according to Tiziana Casciaro, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management.While drafting policies at the top — like the public health policies that informed decisions at Willowdale and other institutions — is the most efficient way to meet challenges, it has drawbacks.“It allows top-down directives to take over the life of an organization without any opportunity for the bottom-up loop to ever close. This is something that I think applied in this particular case,” Casciaro said.Bedard and Mueller meanwhile, say they did the best they could with the information at hand. “There is always going to be, in retrospect, things that you look back on and say I wish, I could have, and we will learn from that for sure, but I don’t think we can second-guess the things that we did,” Bedard said.Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

24th, May 2020, 05:00pm

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