Norfolk and Haldimand’s board of health passed on an opportunity to distance itself from a controversial public order that has angered and distressed local farmers.
At issue is an order from Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s Medical Officer of Health, requiring farmers to cap the number of newly arrived migrant workers under mandatory quarantine to three per bunkhouse, regardless of floor area.
Nesathurai approved the order as a social-distancing measure designed to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in farm settings at a manageable level. With the quarantine lasting two weeks, this has created labour shortages at a time when farmers are usually fully engaged with their operations.
A motion came to the board on May 19 asking Nesathurai to modify the order because it is causing financial hardship, threatening food security, and is not enforced elsewhere in Ontario.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” said Delhi Coun. Mike Columbus, who voted in the minority as the resolution was rejected 6-3. “I thought there would be some flexibility.”
Board members have been feeling the heat since the order was issued March 24.
The labour-placement bottleneck has forced some farmers to pass on this year’s asparagus harvest. Meanwhile, the board was warned that the quality of orchard crops this year will suffer due to inadequate pruning. There will be further consequences as the 2020 growing season progresses.
The board stood down, however, after county solicitor Paula Boutis warned that countermanding the medical officer of health – especially on economic grounds during a pandemic – is a hazardous move legally.
“When you decide to act in the shoes of the medical officer of health, that puts you at risk,” Boutis said, adding that even “a request” to Nesathurai to alter his policies could raise questions about “the standard of care” the board is obliged, under the law, to uphold.
That law is the Health Promotion and Protection Act – legislation that reigns supreme during a public health emergency. Nowhere in that legislation, Boutis said, does it empower or encourage a board of health to factor economics into its calculations.
Because the population of Norfolk County is nearly 20,000 greater than Haldimand, the province designated Norfolk council as the counties’ joint board of health when Haldimand-Norfolk Region was restructured in 2000.
The May 19 motion was tabled by Waterford Coun. Kim Huffman and seconded by Columbus. Their wards are home to large farm operations that — in some cases – employ 100 or more offshore workers.
After Boutis spoke, Huffman withdrew the economic rationale for her motion, but not before pointing out that the toll an uncertain growing season is taking on the health and mental well-being of farm families is, in itself, a public health issue.
Simcoe Coun. Ian Rabbitts agreed. Rabbitts has had conversations in recent weeks with affected parties on the subject of suicide, spousal abuse and marital breakdown, and substance abuse and self-medication in response to financial uncertainty.
A recurring theme in the discussion was the lack of consultation with farmers before Nesathurai imposed his order. The flexibility Columbus sought includes raising the bunkhouse threshold during the mandatory quarantine to six.
As a compromise, the board of health passed a resolution asking Nesathurai to review the data and determine whether changed circumstances since March 24 warrant revisions to his order. The doctor said he would do that and report back to the board of health at its next meeting in early June.
An area farmer has referred Nesathurai’s order to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board. That appeal will be heard this week, Boutis said.