Toronto backtracks on return-to-office plans for city employees as Omicron spreads – Toronto Star

On Nov. 30, Mayor John Tory announced that the roughly one-quarter of 32,000 active city employees working remotely would have to return to their workplaces at least three days per week starting Jan. 4.

By David RiderCity Hall Bureau Chief

Mon., Dec. 13, 20213 min. read

Article was updated 11 hrs ago

In another sign of mounting concern over the spread of COVID-19’s Omicron variant, the city of Toronto has cancelled plans to force almost 9,000 remotely working employees back into city offices starting Jan. 4.

The city noted in a Monday news release that Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, has urged Ontario employers to allow staff to continue working from home to avoid accelerating the virus’s resurgence.

“As a result of this change in guidance, city office staff will continue to work remotely until there are changes to these provincial public health guidelines,” the city says.

That’s an about-face from Nov. 30 when Mayor John Tory insisted that the roughly one-quarter of 32,000 active city employees working remotely could safely be ordered back to their workplaces at least three days per week.

He said it was important to send a signal to downtown employers that it is time to help rejuvenate Toronto’s ailing core by safely refilling the office towers and other workplaces upon which many other businesses rely.

Asked then why he was pushing for employees to start mingling again given the discovery of the worrying new Omicron variant, Tory replied: “We had to have a plan and a plan requires a date.

“At no time would we do anything that is contrary to the best interests of the health of our own employees, but we have a dividend here that is paid by the fact that we have almost 100 per cent of (city staff) vaccinated.”

Tory now acknowledges that, with the more contagious Omicron set to quickly overtake the dominant Delta variant, Toronto’s COVID-19 situation is too precarious to return to anything like normal days in the business district.

“I remain as committed as ever to Toronto’s recovery from this pandemic,” he said, “and to continuing to adhere to public health advice — particularly at this time with the new Omicron variant,” he said, urging everyone to immediately get fully vaccinated including booster shots.

The news will disappoint some members of Toronto’s business community worried about the economic future of the city’s core. The Toronto Region Board of Trade had welcomed Tory’s earlier pledge as an important signal that the core is starting to emerge from pandemic ruin.

About 67 per cent of 550,000 workers who had poured into the core every day have instead worked remotely, devastating small businesses relying on foot traffic, while Toronto lost billions of dollars of spending by foreign business travellers.

Plans to fully reopen city buildings and resume in-person city council and committee meetings after New Year’s are also on hold.

Dr. Peter Jüni, head of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, told reporters Monday that Omnicron is spreading more rapidly than any previous strain of COVID-19.

“People cannot imagine the sheer scale of what we are talking about here,” he said. “It is really challenging.”

Tory has said it would be devastating for Toronto’s local businesses to have to revert to severe restrictions or lockdown to halt COVID-19 spread that could threaten the region’s health care capacity.

On Monday, Kingston, facing an explosion in Omicron cases and the highest number of intensive care COVID-19 cases in Ontario, ordered a limit of five people on gatherings and new restrictions on indoor dining hours and operations until at least Dec. 20.

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider