Essential workers who put food in grocery stores through the Ontario Food Terminal are pleading with the government to prioritize them for vaccinations, as more of them fall ill.
The food terminal in Etobicoke is the largest distribution hub for fruit and produce in the country, and the fourth-largest in North America. Frontline workers say despite doing everything right, COVID-19 variants are still spreading rapidly.
“Does someone have to die down here before we get a couple thousand vaccines?” asks Larry Davidson, owner of North American Produce, which operates at the terminal.
The terminal is considered an essential business by the government, and has stayed open throughout the pandemic. The board that runs the terminal has put COVID-19 protocols in place, including screening, masking, cleaning and controlling how buyers move through the site, to keep the virus in check. The terminal managed to limit outbreaks and prevent spread, for a time.
“Up until these variants, which are obviously far more contagious,” says Davidson. “That’s what I had.”
He tells CityNews that in the last month, he and more than 20 per cent of his workforce have been infected with COVID-19.
“At this point it’s not really relevant how it’s being spread,” he says. “People are wearing their masks, they’re doing everything they’re supposed to no different than they did the whole year. It’s now a matter of getting people vaccinated.”
Should COVID-19 force the terminal to shut down, Davidson says Ontarians would see the impact at their grocers.
“The distribution of produce would be affected significantly in the province,” he says. More than 5,000 Ontario businesses buy fruits and vegetables at the terminal.
Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, workers put in long hours in close quarters to get fresh produce into Ontario’s grocery stores and beyond.
“Unless you’ve been in this environment you really don’t know what it’s like, it can be a zoo sometimes,” says Curtis Millette, an inventory control manager with North American Produce. “It’s always very busy.”
Davidson’s worst fear was realized when he brought the virus home to his 10-year-old daughter and his wife. His partner has multiple sclerosis and ended up hospitalized.
“I’m heartbroken. I hope my wife recovers,” he says. “I’ll never be able to forgive myself for what I brought home, never. It eats at me every minute of every day.”
As of right now, Ontario plans to vaccinate anyone who cannot work from home in mid-May. However, many doctors are pushing the conservative government to move that date up as they see more and more essential workers end up in ICUs.
“That is part of the second phase and frankly very much dependent on supply we receive,” says Sylvia Jones, Ontario’s solicitor general. “As soon as we have sufficient supply we’re going to make sure that if you can’t work from home, you’ll have access to a vaccine.”
The government has been working with employers to set up mobile vaccine clinics at businesses in hotspots, however the food terminal isn’t in one of the 114 at-risk neighbourhoods identified by the province.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” says Davidson. “We should be ahead of people who are able to work from home.”