The largest facility for the distribution of fruits and vegetables in Canada has been the site of a COVID-19 outbreak for the last two weeks.
According to Toronto Public Health, as of Friday morning, the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke has had 24 confirmed workplace infections.
The terminal is, and has remained throughout the pandemic, a 24-hour, 365-day operation serving produce to 5,000 businesses in Ontario alone and many more across the continent, with about a million trucks per year coming and going.
With traffic like that, Larry Davidson, president of in-house vendor North American Produce Buyers, thinks the terminal should be hailed as a success.
“This place has run the last, let’s call it 14 months … in either a next-to-no-virus circumstance or a very low-virus circumstance,” said Davidson, crediting the board that runs the facility.
Despite the successful safety precautions, Davidson said there have been sporadic cases over time, noting that he and many of his staff have tested positive over the last year.
In Davidson’s case, he even brought it home, infecting his daughter and wife. He worries that scenario will play out in the homes of many other food terminal workers if something is not done soon.
“That’s why we’re pushing to try to get a vaccine clinic set up here,” he said.
The province had earlier announced plans to roll out on-site vaccine clinics at Ontario’s large workplaces, where public health officials say the virus has high chances of spreading. Employers would pay to run the clinics and the province provides the shots. Companies like Amazon and Maple Leaf Foods will stage such clinics at their facilities in Peel Region next week.
Davidson said food terminal officials have looked into it and even offered to extend availability to neighbourhood residents, but were told the facility is not currently eligible because its M8Y postal code doesn’t fall in one of the 114 provincially designated hotspots.
While that might be true, Davidson points out many workers there live in those zones.
“These are front-line workers. I’ve been told that over 60 per cent of the area codes of the people that (work) down here fall into the high-risk zones … My guys here in their 20s and 30s that are working to support families, that live in multi-generational households, that are here six days a week busting their rear ends, taking public transit and making sure there’s food on the shelves in the grocery stores need to get vaccinated,” he said.
He understands many of them can get vaccinated in their own local clinics, but Davidson worries many of them will have trouble sorting through confusing information to find clinics, and then have trouble booking convenient appointments.
As of Friday, Toronto and Peel Public Health have extended their powers under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, allowing them to fully or partially close down or alter shifts at some businesses with confirmed outbreaks of five or more COVID-19 cases within the last 14 days. The food terminal, however, is unlikely to be affected. It’s too important to grocers and restaurants already struggling to make ends meet with takeout and delivery, and in turn, the average Ontarian.
“If you closed it down, you would have a lot of food shortages in restaurants and grocery stores,” said James Rilett, central Canada vice president of industry representative agency Restaurants Canada.
“You would also see a lot of wasted food, as it’s a place that (for) a lot of farmers, it’s the only place to sell their foods.”
It’s that duality of being told his workers are essential while being told their workplace isn’t currently eligible for a vaccine clinic that so greatly frustrates Davidson.
“If you need food and it’s a priority and we’re doing everything we can to keep the place open, it’s not logical that they haven’t been able to get a clinic set up,” he said.
It appears his advocacy may soon pay off.
In an email sent to Global News late Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General says the province is working on a solution.
“The Ontario Food Terminal is a unique Ontario government asset and its staff and vendors are critical for the provincial food supply chain,” the spokesperson said.
“We are working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, as well as the Ontario Food Terminal Board, to stand up a vaccine clinic at the food terminal as soon as supply allows. We will have more to say about this initiative soon.”