As COVID case counts continue to rise and the Ontario government promises to do more to fight the pandemic, manufacturers warn that thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic output are at risk if they’re forced to shut down.
“There are a lot of consequences if you lock an industry down or lock part of an industry down. There will be some businesses that don’t make it through,” said Dennis Darby, president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters trade association, in an interview Monday.
Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is expected to announce new restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19 after unveiling projections showing a disastrous continued rise in cases in the province. Some reports say the new projections show an average of 6,000 new COVID cases per day in Ontario by the end of the month.
Shutting down the manufacturing sector would be economically damaging and not useful in fighting the spread, Darby insisted.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate or particularly helpful to shut down manufacturing,” said Darby, adding that Ontario’s 36,000 manufacturing firms and their 760,000 employees are being responsible. It’s also, Darby added, far easier to keep track of employees than it is for the provincial government to keep track of people socializing at home.
“In a controlled environment, where you can do testing and contact tracing, the spread can be controlled. The real problem is people gathering casually, in social groups,” said Darby, who’s in favour of the provincial government setting a curfew to help curb the spread of COVID.
The automotive parts industry would be wiped out almost instantly if it was ordered to shut down, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.
The just-in-time nature of modern automotive manufacturing means that car manufacturers don’t have two weeks worth of parts sitting around if there’s a shutdown, said Volpe.
“Most of our members have one or two days’ supply. And so do the car companies. You don’t get a chance to explain why you didn’t deliver the part. They move on,” said Volpe, adding that parts manufacturers have already demonstrated their commitment to fighting the spread of COVID.
For most APMA members, business last year was down anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent from 2019, said Volpe. Some of that slide was from reduced demand, but much of it was from reduced manufacturing schedules and other steps taken to help cut the risk of COVID.
“If you go into a parts plant, it’s night and day compared to this time last year. No one is wandering around. They’re in a defined work area,” said Volpe.
Volpe is hopeful the auto parts industry will be spared a shutdown.
“The government understands the just-in-time nature of automotive manufacturing,” he said.
Lockdowns might help to reduce the spread of COVID, but a much more effective tool would be giving workers more of an incentive to stay home if they’re sick, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch.
“Sure, lockdowns are another lever you can pull. But until you deal with the upstream cause of the infections, lockdowns aren’t going to solve anything on their own,” said Bogoch.
That means paid sick leave for workers across the province, added Bogoch, what kind of work they do, or whether they’re full time, part time or contract.
“The highest yield return in terms of fighting this is paid sick leave. Right now, some people don’t get paid if they don’t work, so they go to work when there are outbreaks. People might go home from there to a multi-generational home and make their relatives sick,” said Bogoch, adding that the COVID risk hasn’t been spread equally.
“These are uncomfortable conversations to have because they involve things like equity. Well, there are inequities in our society,” he said.