Dr. Mustafa Hirji showed his hand to Niagara regional councillors Friday, after more than a week of silence on council’s recommendation he repeal a Section 22 order that imperils the region’s restaurant industry.
Hirji, who is the acting medical officer for Niagara Region, told regional councillors at a meeting Friday that he has not acted on their recommendation. “Dr. Hirji gave us a briefing today and has stated that he has not lifted the Section 22 order. I am not totally sure what he is thinking nor what he is intending on doing,” said Rob Foster, Niagara Regional Councillor for Lincoln.
Earlier, in response to a The Bench News query, Hirji’s office also made a brief statement by email Friday. “We’ve received and acknowledged the recommendation of Regional Council as well as that of several local area municipalities. These will be taken into account in our continuous review of the need for the order which will be based on the science and evidence of COVID-19 transmission,” said Kerri Stoakley, speaking on behalf of Hirji at Niagara Regional Public Health.
Stoakley repeatedly ignored a question asking if Hirji will act on the recommendation.
But Hirji has no obligation to answer to the public or its elected representatives or the media. He also has the full support of Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott. They defended Hirji after he received a deluge of hateful phone calls following the publication of his phone number. “I really hope people will take these orders seriously,” Elliott said of Hirji’s order. “Do not harass the medical officer of health, but follow his direction because he’s only trying to keep people safe.”
At an emergency meeting Nov. 18, Niagara Regional Council passed a motion unanimously to recommend that the Hirji amend his controversial medical order, that the restaurant industry says if left as is would decimate its ranks resulting in bankruptcies and lost jobs. It employs an estimated 60,000 people in the region.
The motion said: “That Regional Council RECOMMEND that the Acting Medical Officer of Health amend the directive under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act with respect to who can be seated at a table at a restaurant and to remove the requirement limited to household members only.” (The bold capital letters were part of the regional council’s issued statement.)
The four-part motion is a recommendation from councillors that primarily urges Hirji to remove an order he issued limiting restaurant patrons to four people per table from the same household. The restaurant industry said the order will result in further lost business which has been reduced to a trickle since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March.
The regional council can not compel Hirji to withdraw or modify the order. Provincial law protects Hirji from political influence. Hirji answers to the Niagara Regional Public Health Board which consists largely of regional councillors, but he cannot be ordered to act under its direction.
Daryl Barnhart, Executive Officer to the Regional Chair, Jim Bradley, said Hirji is under no obligation to respond to the council’s recommendation. He pointed out that Hirji “provided feedback through three hours of questions and answers last Wednesday” at Niagara Regional Council’s emergency meeting.
When asked if Hirji will make a public statement to respond to the council recommendation, Barnhart said could not speak for Hirji, but said he would check to see if a statement is forthcoming. (The Bench News will update if Barnhart sends na update.)
Hirji has made no further public statements since the council recommendation was issued. It leaves Niagara Restaurants United, an alliance of food service organizations and their workers, founded by restaurateur Mark Wood with one option, to pursue a legal challenge at the provincial level. Wood said by the time a legal challenge gets to court, Hirji’s order would have expired.
He said instead his alliance will pursue a lobbyist strategy. “We need to get organized more than a few thousand people on Facebook and work at the provincial level,” he said.
Wood operates three Niagara Region restaurants, The Forty Public House in Grimsby and the Grantham Pub and The Office in St Catharines.
The Bench News reached out to Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff to see if funding will be offered by the Ford government to help the restaurant industry navigate the financial peril that Hirji’s order puts some of its stakeholders in. Ooserhoff listed a litany of specialty programs that can help COVID-beleagured businesses, including restaurants.
They including an energy assistance program that helps with hydro, the digital Main Street Ontario grant that helps with online sales, a PPE grant, property tax reductions, an employer health tax exemption as well as commercial rent assistance among other programs.
None specifically addressed Hirji’s order or is impact on Niagara restaurants.
Wood was dismissive of Oosterhoff’s claims of assistance. “Don’t slap me down and tell me you’re shutting my business down. ..you take away my legal right to support my family. You’re going to hand me a couple of bucks on the side to make it better. I don’t want your money…I want my rights back,” said Wood.
Wood argues that no death in the Niagara region can be attributed directly to a person eating at a restaurant and that his industry is being unfairly targeted. Hirji claims restaurant contact is a vector for coronavirus transmission which causes COVID-19
On Friday, the Ontario government reported 1,855 new COVID-19 cases Friday, surpassing the previous record of 1,589 reported on Monday. The Niagara Region reported 26 cases, a slight increase from Thursday’s report of 24.
Niagara Region remains in the orange tier of the province’s COVID-19 response framework. Hirji’s Section 22 order is additional to the measures issued by the Ford government in the orange tier.