How and when will the province re-open? Rod Phillips, Ontario’s recovery czar, has some answers

How and when will the province re-open? Rod Phillips, Ontario’s recovery czar, has some answers

"Maybe a restaurant that used to seat 50 people will be able to seat 10"

Rod Phillips, Ontario's minister of finance, is leading the provincial recovery and re-opening effort

You’re the chair of the province’s jobs and recovery committee. We’re seeing you on TV during the Premier’s daily press conferences. What else are you doing in a typical day?
I’m working with my colleagues in cabinet who represent the ministries that represent various parts of the economy—agriculture, small business, technology, mining and forestry. And then we’re reaching out to stakeholders from each of those areas as we design the plans not just to reopen the economy but to see its recovery. This week we released A Framework for Opening Our Province, which we created in consultation with the health professionals who have been advising us at every step.

I want to get into what’s in the plan, but first let’s talk about what’s not in it. A timeline, a start date, a number for us to circle on our calendars…
The framework is a road map, not a calendar. We’ll be putting dates out when the time is appropriate, when we have met the health pre-requisites that mean we are past the pandemic stage and can move onto re-opening and recovery. Until then, we want Ontarians to understand how it is that we plan to get from one point to the next. And also how we plan to manage and control potential flare-ups, which we have seen in places like Singapore.

What are the health pre-requisites you’re looking to see?
Four things. First off, we want to see a decrease in spread—that is, a consistent two-week decrease in the daily number of new cases. Number two, we need to maintain health care system capacity, meaning our hospitals and health care workers. Third, public health care system capacity, which involves the tracking and containing of any new cases, which involves the fourth requirement: adequate testing.

Does the fact that other provinces have included dates mean that Ontario is taking a different approach, or just that we are at a different stage of recovery?
Saskatchewan is at a stage where they feel comfortable putting dates out there. To be fair, all of the provinces that have given dates have also said that if there is a major shift in health, they will change those dates. I know that people want a timeline, and we will get there, but at this point it wouldn’t be fair or transparent to just pick a date and hope we get there.

Phase two of the plan states that public health and workplace safety will be top priorities, but how do you balance those priorities with the needs of people and businesses?
By taking the appropriate time. That’s why we have two to four weeks between every step, which is based on the incubation period of Covid-19 being approximately two weeks. That lag allows epidemiologists to judge the impacts of each step. We will start by re-opening the businesses that can do so safely. Yesterday we released sector-specific guidelines on what that might look like, so that businesses can prepare as best they can, whether that means buying masks, putting up Plexiglas, implementing physical distancing or arranging for curbside pickup. I would say that along with getting a lot smarter on the health and the science of Covid-19, we have learned a lot about how to operate businesses effectively.

For example?
At the LCBO, which is owned by the province and reports to me, they have been keeping track of what’s been working and not working in retail environments. They have big urban stores, smaller rural stores, warehouses and a vast supply chain to manage, and we’ve gleaned valuable information from them. They’ve closed on Mondays to do additional cleaning, for example. We’ve learned about what you clean, how you clean, what you clean with. We’ve studied social distancing inside a retail environment. One approach is that you can only let so many people into the facility, but if everybody’s clustered into one place, how do you deal with that?

Phase two of the provincial plan addresses the potential for small gatherings. Does this mean I’ll be able to get together with friends and family soon?
When we are ready to talk about those details, we’re going to be very specific about numbers and types of gatherings. We have been talking about the importance of funerals—so the question is how do we evolve the policies to allow for that?

One of the hot topics at the moment is this idea of a multi-household bubble—in other words, a few families who effectively self-isolate together, each in their own home. Is that something you’re considering?
We’re looking at everything. Although I don’t know if I’d want to explain to one family why I wasn’t going to be in a bubble with them.

There is definitely potential for awkwardness. Moving on: the upcoming long weekend. Dare I ask?
We’re dealing with the chief medical officer on that. Like I said, once we get the go ahead, we’ll move onto the first phase of reopening.

From what I can see, phase one doesn’t relax the rules around Torontonians heading up to the cottage.
The province continues to advise against travel to rural areas at this time. We have decided to deal with the province as a whole rather than region by region. The health rationale is based on the fact that just one person can transmit the diseases to dozens of others. If we re-open different parts of the province at different times but aren’t willing to cordon off those areas, then it’s only logical to assume that we’d see an influx of people heading to those areas. Mathematically speaking, there will be people who have Covid-19, so that kind of movement leads to a spread flowing out from certain hot spots. That’s what happened in Italy and New York.

You are the MPP for Ajax, where the population density is about one tenth that of downtown Toronto. Presumably there is some frustration there about having to wait it out.
Certainly I get a lot of differing opinions, but I would say that first and foremost people are focused on the safety of their families, and 99 per cent are taking the steps that they have to. And then they are also concerned about the economy. In general, people worry about two things in life: being sick and being poor.

And taxes. We’re moving into tax season.
Well, we’ve deferred a lot of that. What I’ve also seen is that Ontarians seem to be appreciating that government parties, who are traditionally at each other about this and that, are now working together. My federal member, Mark Holland, who is a Liberal, asked me to do a virtual town hall with him, which normally just wouldn’t happen. It was exceptionally well attended. I think there is a sense of coming together that provides comfort.

Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford seem downright cozy these days.
There will be lots of time for politics, but right now we’re all dealing with the challenge of our generation. People have legitimate differences of opinion, which is healthy. That’s different from the overt partisanship that we’re seeing in the United States.

And yet, there were demonstrators outside of Queen’s Park last weekend, protesting the lockdown. The Premier called them yahoos. What would you call them?
He’s much more colourful than I am with his language, but I think he got it right. Again, the fact that they disagree is not a problem. The fact that they got together and weren’t showing proper physical distancing is disrespectful of what’s going to keep us all healthy and protect our health care workers and our most vulnerable. I understand the frustration, but it’s not fair, and their behaviour makes me angry.

Last week, the province and the feds announced a new commercial rent relief program. The government will provide 50 per cent of monthly rent payments in the form of forgivable loans to the property owner for three months; the small business owner pays 25 per cent and the landlord absorbs the remaining 25 per cent. Presumably that plan has your fingerprints all over it?
Yes, I’ve been working with the federal finance minister, Bill Morneau, and other provincial finance ministers. I think it’s going to help hundreds of thousands of Ontario businesses get through this.

 

 

The plan has been criticized for favouring landlords over lease holders. How did you decide on the particulars?
Any program that was going to be effective had to be able to be done quickly. There are 1.2 million commercial leases in Ontario. The option of doing something with every one of those businesses quickly wasn’t going to be fast enough. There are fewer landlords than there are tenants and almost all of them have relationships with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, so having them be the ones who apply for the loans is the better option in terms of a delivery mechanism. In terms of the proportions, that came from listening. Most of the landlords I talked to were getting nowhere close to 75 per cent of rental payments. From a tenant’s point of view, having to pay 25 per cent of your rent is a lot less, and it gives you—because we introduced protections that forbid landlords from jacking up the rent or evicting people as soon as the three months are up.

Restaurants are in a precarious situation at the moment. Are you looking at programs that address them specifically?
We’re trying to put forward programs that support everybody. We reduced electricity rates and gotten rid of time-based pricing, which particularly helps businesses like restaurants, which use a lot of power. And we got rid of the prohibition on delivering alcohol. Restaurants are the heart and soul of our neighbourhoods, and obviously we want to help as many as we can. Maybe that will mean in a restaurant that used to seat 50 people will be able to seat 10. We want to focus on creating conditions where businesses can reopen and also where consumers will feel comfortable returning.

What consumer activity are you aching to take part in ASAP?
I miss having a coffee. As a politician, I’m always meeting somebody for a coffee. Going to the Tim Horton’s across from the Frost Building where I’ve been working and sitting down for a coffee. That will be my indulgence when we get to that stage.

No offence to Timmy’s, but that doesn’t feel overly indulgent.
I think people want to see me being economical. It can be a little boring being the finance minister.