How restaurants help contact tracers as the virus is ‘fully unleashed’ in Peel
A camera pans the packed white tent. For what looks like a Halloween party, there are few masks – those for costumes or the ones meant to protect against a highly contagious virus.
The video, filmed in Mississauga on Halloween weekend, according to claims on social media, has nearly a half-million likes on a popular GTA Instagram page and landed on Mayor Bonnie Crombie’s radar.
Peel’s medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, warned that failing to heed public health guidelines during social events such as Thanksgiving and Halloween would produce even more COVID-19 cases in the already hard-hit region, one of Canada’s worst hotspots.
“Contact tracing obviously continues, but I think on a gross number just in the last weekend, which represents two weeks from Halloween, we have seen an additional surge,” Dr. Loh said in a press conference Tuesday. “It's something that we continue to look into, but the timeframe certainly is suspicious for being linked with Halloween.”
Mayor Crombie said Peel Police are investigating the gathering and charges will be laid on the establishment, if warranted. The City also confirmed earlier in the day it was conducting its own investigation. While officials work to pin down what happened in one isolated incident, Peel is seeing a drastic rise in COVID-19 cases across the region.
“...[T]he reality, as hard as it may be to stomach, is that the virus has been fully unleashed in our community,” she said, with Monday’s data from the Region of Peel showing 466 new cases, the highest since the pandemic began.
On the same day, the Province reported 1,242 new cases. Peel’s figure represents 38 percent of Ontario’s new infections. The region accounts for a little over ten percent of the province’s population and while Ontario recorded 8.52 cases per 100,000 residents yesterday, in Peel, the figure was 31 new infections per 100,000.
The numbers in Brampton offer an even more alarming comparison. Yesterday’s 285 new cases in the city represented a rate of 44 infections for every 100,000 residents.
Updated data from the Region of Peel shows a staggering 466 cases of COVID-19 recorded yesterday, the most by far of any single day during the entire pandemic.
The Province reported 385 new cases in Peel on November 8, and 258 on November 7. There has been a discrepancy between the provincial government’s figures and those posted on the Region’s daily dashboard due to a lag in reporting.
In response to the spread and Health Minister Christine Elliott’s reporting on Friday that Brampton’s test positivity reached about 11 percent, the Region added another layer of public health intervention over the weekend, beyond the “Red-Control” zone guidelines in the provincial framework. Not all of the restrictions are legally enforceable, the Mayor noted.
For example, in the case of restaurant dining, the province’s 10-patron limit is further controlled under Peel’s restrictions to a maximum four people per table, and all must be members of the same household.
The day the new provincial restrictions were announced for Peel, November 6, also marked the one year anniversary for a Brampton restaurant business, AJ’s Bar and Grill, under new owner Utah Thurairajah.
“The timing wasn’t that pleasant,” he said of the milestone, thanking his landlord for providing rent support during these challenging circumstances. AJ’s was forced to close during the COVID-19 lockdown, only four months after Thurairajah bought the restaurant and expanded the dinner menu to boost business.
It was a celebratory Christmas party at AJ's last year, which opened in November 2019. The restaurant was forced to close after four months due to COVID-19.
Thurairajah said he was able to bring back employees and resume putting orders in with his suppliers after dining restrictions eased, relying on the lunch takeout rush and AJ’s patio to serve customers.
In Peel, restaurants and other high-risk businesses are required to take detailed contact tracing records and store the data for at least 30 days.
Thurairajah is using an online tool, SafeCheckIn.ca, to avoid having patrons and staff touch the same pens or sheets of paper while taking down contact information.
The safety controls for guests and staff work like this: a patron comes to the restaurant door and scans a QR code with their phone, allowing them to respond to three screening questions, submit their name and contact information, while the time of entry is noted. After a meal or picking up a takeout order, the patron scans the QR to record the exit time. For businesses that keep paper records, the process is completed manually. If a restaurant is flagged by public health officials including contact tracers for a potential infection risk due to the presence of someone who tests positive, or anyone directly linked to the individual, the collected data would be used immediately to reach out to other patrons or staff who may need to be tested.
The Milton-based SafeCheckIn was founded this summer by Chief Operating Officer Konesh Thurairasah. The application is hosted on Microsoft Azure, an encrypted platform which has more than 90 compliance certifications, including for health privacy.
Konesh Thurairasah, COO of SafeCheckIn.ca
Service packages for SafeCheckIn can go from $10 to $100 a month. The founder is offering it at no cost to NGOs and non-profit organizations in efforts to fulfill a “corporate social responsibility, giving it to them for free so that they can use and get benefit out of it,” Thurairasah said.
Mississauga has charged one restaurant so far with failing to comply with provincial contract tracing regulations, a City spokesperson confirmed. Under the Reopening Ontario Act, municipal officers are not required to assess contact tracing logs for accuracy, but do ensure the required information is being completed.
To protect privacy, only those records required by an inspector under the Health Protection and Promotion Act can be reviewed for contact tracing purposes.
Peel is still conducting contact tracing, “But our ability to do so is increasingly challenged,” Dr. Loh said Tuesday. “And at some point, it may just be severe outbreaks only” that prompt tracing efforts.
Peel Public Health, joined with provincial partners in the labour, education, finance, transportation and environment ministries, conducted a blitz of 330 retail facilities this past weekend. The businesses were targeted based on local data that demonstrated a high-risk for COVID-19 spread, Dr. Loh said, underscoring a need for paid sick days or other worker protections.
In some parts of Peel, officials are seeing residents go in to work when they should be isolating, he said, “because they're concerned about losing their job, or they're concerned that they're not going to have enough money to make rent… and that's where exposures and outbreaks are occurring.”
Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel's medical officer of health.
In the last week, Mississauga inspectors ordered two lounges and a late-night speakeasy to close, Mayor Crombie said. Mississauga has 90 staff allocated to COVID-19 enforcement on City property, and transit, and 41 for issues at private businesses and households, a spokesperson told The Pointer.
In September, Peel Police attended 124 calls where a COVID-19 concern may have been present, and 92 in October. “In short we generally provide a layer of security to keep the peace in case disputes arise,” said Constable Kyle Villers in an email to The Pointer. Officers can issue tickets under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, as was done by Toronto Police this summer in response to a nightclub charged with violating physical distancing rules, but have very limited jurisdiction.
To clamp down on the recent surge in infections, Toronto is extending the recent 28-day restriction period and its approach will see indoor dining remain prohibited, unlike Peel where, as of Saturday, restaurants were allowed to reopen indoor spaces with no more than ten patrons.
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