The leader of the Ontario NDP has announced her party will be bringing forward legislation to create “public health safety zones” in an effort to deal with rising instances of harassment and organized protests over COVID-19 vaccinations and protocols.
“We’ve seen what’s been happening to too many businesses. Folks who were doing the right thing, who are trying to keep people safe, folks who are vaccinated, whose customers are vaccinated, whose workers are vaccinated … They’re being harassed for it and that has to stop,” Andrea Horwath told reporters at Queen’s Park on Tuesday.
“We know that businesses have been through a heck of a lot in these last number of months, this last year-and-a-half, and some of them haven’t been able to hang on. The ones that have been able to hang on and are welcoming customers back shouldn’t be faced with customers literally being chased out with the very disruptive, very violent types of protests.”
Horwath said the bill is being brought forward after a number of MPPs within the Ontario NDP caucus, in and outside of Toronto, have reported receiving complaints about pandemic-related protests from constituents in their ridings.
However, exact details on how such an initiative could work and be enforced appeared to still be in development.
Horwath said the size and distance of a safety zone would be a matter of regulation by the government should the bill pass, adding there isn’t a defined buffer zone since there are different requirements for different businesses.
When asked how the legislation will respect people’s right to protest, she said the initiative wouldn’t eliminate that right.
“What we are saying is that in this public health global pandemic when people are using organizational tools to get these little posses together to be right up in the face of these businesses, we need to give those businesses the space to do their business,” Horwath said.
She said while she didn’t have a specific end date for the legislation since it’s still being drafted, she said it’s her expectation it would end at the end of the pandemic since it’s targeting organized protests over COVID-19.
Horwath said the bill contemplates leaving the enforcement to municipal bylaw officers and police services.
When asked how optimistic she is that Progressive Conservative MPPs would back such a measure, she wasn’t confident there would be backing.
“All we can do is try and that’s what we’re doing, and we’re trying to show the premier there are things he could and should be doing. We have been doing this for many, many, many, many months … and unfortunately, we haven’t had much success,” she said while also calling for Premier Doug Ford to implementation of vaccine passports and enact stronger back-to-school safety measures.
Global News has reported on businesses that have been the subject of physical and online protests. However, it appeared the legislation wouldn’t tackle issues surrounding online activities targeting businesses such as a bombardment of negative reviews or other cyber-related issues.
A spokesperson for Ontario Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott said they weren’t going to comment on the proposed bill since they haven’t seen the details, but added the government “strongly condemns this kind of behaviour.”
“No one should be made to feel unsafe for following public health guidelines, like wearing face coverings in public spaces or rolling up their sleeve to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” Alexandra Hilkene told Global News in an email when asked about the proposal.
“Ontarians are better than that and, as we have from the very start of this pandemic, we expect them to do the right thing and follow the public health advice that has helped us keep each other and our communities safe.”
Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca said in a brief statement on Tuesday that he and his party are still waiting to read the bill.
“Ontario Liberals are very supportive of doing everything possible to support and protect small business owners,” he wrote.
Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Green Party of Ontario and the MPP for Guelph, also called on Premier Doug Ford to take action on vaccine passports and other initiatives.
“Ontario Greens recognize the need to ensure the safety of businesses and their patrons while also recognizing the importance of the right to protest, but creating safety zones alone will not resolve the fundamental issues and causes of the anger and frustration directed at small businesses. We have to treat the problem,” he said.
Meanwhile, Horwath said it was “disappointing” that the measure has to be introduced.
“For those folks who are not interested in being part of the solution, then at least let the rest of us do what we can to keep each other safe, to respect our small businesses, to get them as much business as we can give them even though some of them are still very much restricted in terms of the number of customers or clients,” she said.
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