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Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit plan protects both public health and food supply

April 8, 2020, Simcoe, ON – Norfolk County is unique in many ways – one of which is we have one of the most significant and diverse agricultural industries in the Country.

Additionally, Norfolk County sees more foreign agricultural workers enter it than any other jurisdictions. Though this is a strength to our community, during this pandemic it creates significant challenges to ensure the health and safety of all community members.  The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit (HNHU) continues to work with the local agricultural industry to ensure the safety of Ontario’s food supply, and at the same time protect our community from the spread of COVID-19.

In consultation with local farmers, and based on the expert advice of the Medical Officer of Health, the HNHU has implemented a series of measures aimed at keeping both seasonal workers and local residents safe and healthy, and preventing the creation of “hotspots” that put additional strain on our area’s limited rural medical infrastructure.

Details include:

  • The mandatory submission of farm-specific self-isolation plans for incoming seasonal workers.
  • The plans must be approved by the HNHU prior to workers leaving their country of origin, and will include details such as airport arrivals, transportation and accommodations, and the provision of supplies and services to workers during isolation.
  • The Medical Officer of Health has ordered that no more than three seasonal workers can be housed in a bunkhouse during the initial travel related mandatory quarantine period.

The HHNHU has already approved more than 100 such plans, allowing more than 1,200 seasonal workers into the area in just over a week’s time.

Recognizing the challenges that this could pose for our farmers with limited housing options, Norfolk County was developing a farm-funded program to house and feed seasonal workers in hotel rooms, at a cost of approximately $1,800 per worker. Norfolk would have deferred the cost to our farmers until a later date, to assist with cash flow issues, and would have absorbed the administrative costs of the program.  Combined, this would have likely provided $2 million in temporary support to the industry. Representatives of the farming community that were on a joint task force with the County, advised the County that farmers would prefer to file individual plans.  As a result this program was abandoned.

“Norfolk farmers and the produce they grow are an essential part of Ontario’s food supply chain, and I was a strong advocate for the travel exemption for our migrant workers,” said Kristal Chopp, Chair of the Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health and Mayor of Norfolk County. “But the challenge is two-fold: on the one hand we must ensure that we maintain a robust and secure food chain throughout this pandemic, but on the other-hand, we have an obligation to our residents to continue to do everything we can to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in our rural community with limited resources. The quarantine hotel program we were willing to offer our farmers was the ideal situation to achieve both of those goals – Norfolk County was willing to deploy significant resources to organize all of the logistics for our farmers which would have allowed them to safely quarantine large numbers of workers at once and provide them with a simple expedited approval process by simply registering in the program.  Unfortunately, as a result of the feedback from the farming representatives on our task force, the program was abandoned.  In my view, this was an unfortunate decision.

“I recognize that this is a controversial issue in our community,” Chopp continued. “But the only way we’ll be able to beat this pandemic is through collective sacrifice and compromise, and learning new ways of doing business. By working together, our community will get through this unprecedented situation.”

The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit continues to work with local agencies to develop a pool of labour available to the agricultural community. Norfolk County is considering providing some transportation costs for qualifying individuals to be able to travel to and from farms for work which is an additional support for the industry.

Norfolk County will continue to support the industry during this crisis.

A summary of some of the key issues related to this important issue can be found here.