How the Legislative Assembly of Ontario Responded To The COVID-19 Pandemic

Article 11 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

How the Legislative Assembly of Ontario Responded To The COVID-19 Pandemic

Unplanned business interruptions can occur at any time. Having a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) helped the Legislative Assembly of Ontario ensure that it had the resources and information required to mitigate and respond to the COVID-19 emergency and to enable resilience and resumption of on-site service delivery. In this article, the author(s) explain how the Assembly’s business continuity planning helped staff navigate the challenging circumstances around the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and how resumption planning is being used to return to more normal operations.

Hugh McGreechan, William Short and Wendy Reynolds

Unplanned business interruptions can occur at any time. Having a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) helped the Legislative Assembly of Ontario ensure that it had the resources and information required to mitigate and respond to the COVID-19 emergency and to enable resilience and resumption of on-site service delivery. In this article, the author(s) explain how the Assembly’s business continuity planning helped staff navigate the challenging circumstances around the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and how resumption planning is being used to return to more normal operations.

What does the COOP do?

The COOP is designed to ensure that the Assembly, its Committees and business operations can continue to perform their functions and dispatch public business on an as needed basis, or during an internal or external crisis.

It provides guidance to allow decision-makers to:

  • Assess a situation quickly and effectively.
  • Notify stakeholders.
  • Organize response activities, such as plan activation, alternate work locations/process implementation and coordinate efforts for business resumption/resilience.
  • Provide staff with information on the status of the situation and communicate any required actions.
  • Inform clients/stakeholders about the status of Assembly services.
  • Reassure stakeholders of the Office of the Legislative Assembly’s ability to recover and restore services.
  • Ensure consistent and timely messaging and centrally coordinate all communications activities until services are fully restored; and
  • Support business recovery efforts.

COVID-19 Mitigation and Response Planning

In the early months of 2020, it was clear that a global crisis was developing in the form of a worldwide pandemic. While the impact and scale of the emergency was not clear, steps were initiated to monitor and prepare for the emerging situation.

The following actions were taken as the crisis escalated:

Initializing communication: A bulletin issued by Health Services was sent to staff addressing the virus, indicating how to remain informed and recommending preventative measures. Posters on hand-washing, cough and sneezing etiquette, and hand sanitizer use were also issued and posted in washrooms and office areas.

Installing hand sanitizer stations: Ensuring dispensers were located at main entrances as well as other critical areas such as outside the Legislative Chamber.

Initiating enhanced cleaning procedures: Cleaning high contact areas on a more frequent basis.

Testing Assembly continuity of operations: A tabletop exercise was conducted with all primary and secondary leads.

Providing communications updates: Circulated as needed based on information from Ontario’s Ministry of Health, Public Health Ontario and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Tracking COVID-19: Launching a reporting structure and tracking mechanism for COVID-19 related illness was established requiring Office of the Assembly Directors to report employee sick absences daily to Human Resources and directing Assembly staff to report any possible COVID-19 exposure to managers.

Additional Measures

Starting in March 2020, further steps were taken in response to expert opinion, such as:

Activation of the service disruption planning team: Composed of representatives of the Office of the Legislative Assembly and all key stakeholders within the Legislative Precinct.

Restrictions on travel: The Speaker and Clerk decided to restrict business travel for all Assembly staff, and for Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) with respect to inter-parliamentary activities.

Workstation cleaning: Assembly staff were advised to wipe their workstations with disinfectant wipes regularly.

Daily update meetings: Daily update meetings were organized for the Senior Management team as community spread of the virus started being reported in Toronto.

Reporting concerns: Legislative Building occupants (Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Press Gallery, Political Parties, cafeteria/dining room) were asked to report any concerns related to COVID-19 daily to the Business Continuity Office.

Community Spread of COVID-19 – Legislative Building Closure

As March 2020 began, it was clear that the virus had gained a foothold in Toronto with the first reported cases of its spread within the community. In response to this news, the Speaker and Clerk determined that public access to the Legislative Precinct would be suspended. This included the cancellation of all educational programs and tours and the closure of the dining room and cafeteria. Non-essential meetings were also suspended (for example, language classes, interviews, lobby group and/or constituent meetings) with the direction that these be shifted to video conference platforms. Communications via e-mail and the Internet/intranet were prepared in order to inform stakeholders of these changes.

On March 13, based on an Ontario wide direction from Government (both provincial and federal) on recommendations from Ontario Public Health, the Speaker and Clerk declared that only critical access would be permitted to the Legislative Building. Revised communications were issued, advising staff, the public and stakeholders of the following restrictions:

  • Refusing entry of all non-essential/non-critical persons.
  • Implementing COOP plans for all branches of the Office of the Legislative Assembly.
  • Suspending the services of the Legislative Pages in the Chamber.
  • Temporarily suspending construction work in and around the Legislative Building and Precinct.

Initiating Plans for the Resumption of Regular Business Practices – A Three-Stage Process

As the closures began, the Clerk established a Business Resumption Committee with a representative from each Assembly Division, the Clerk’s Office and the Speaker’s Office. The Committee was tasked with creating a plan for the Office of the Assembly to gradually and safely reopen our offices and workspaces.

This planning took into account that any return to work or resumption of business process would consider the safety and well-being of employees based on the advice and best practices of health officials while reinstating business practices as close to normal, or a “new normal”, as possible, timely and prudently.

A three-stage response was proposed in order to achieve this.

Stage 1

Stage 1 measures were implemented immediately following the declaration of a state of emergency at the provincial level. These were put in place to protect employee health and safety and ensure the continuation of essential Assembly operations:

Determining essential staff and implementing remote work practices: It was decided that only essential staff1 would remain on site at the Legislative Building. At the same time, protocols for working remotely were implemented.

Acquiring technology: The Office of the Legislative Assembly made the acquisition of technology to support remote working.

Reducing access points: Controlled access points to the Legislative Building and Precinct were reduced.

Scheduling of visits: Access for people other than MPPs and staff was permitted “by appointment only”.

Acquiring sanitizing supplies: The Legislative Assembly acquired personal hand sanitizing supplies and specialized cleaning products to disinfect and protect against COVID-19.

Obtaining PPE: Plans were implemented to source, purchase, train in the use of and distribute personal protection equipment (PPE).

COVID-19 expense tracking measures: A financial code was established for tracking expenses related to COVID-19.

Additional Measures

Screening protocol: A COVID-19 Screening Protocol to access the Legislative Building and Precinct was developed in consultation with the Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health and implemented on May 19, 2020. Every person, including MPPs, had to answer three questions about their current health and possible exposure to the virus before entry to the Legislative Precinct was permitted.

Implementing new signage: New signage was created and directional markings were applied to floors based on Ontario Public Health recommendations to follow a two metre physical distancing requirement. These were placed in all relevant areas (elevators, near water coolers, washrooms, hallways, entry points).

Locating hand sanitization stations: Hand sanitizer stations were placed throughout the Legislative Building, especially near high traffic areas such as elevator bays, and the Chamber.

Physical distancing methods in dining and other areas: Physical distancing practices were introduced, such as in the cafeteria where tables were spread apart and Plexiglas barriers were installed at cash stations along with enhanced food industry safety protocols. Plexiglas barriers were also installed at building entry points.

Wearing PPE: PPE equipment has been provided to essential staff that may be exposed to anyone entering the buildings. Masks may be worn by staff.

Implementing new House and committee processes: The Legislature implemented new operational processes and technology so that Legislative Committees could be conducted virtually, and participants could join meetings online. Physical distancing initiatives (including revised voting procedures) were introduced within the Chamber.

Stage 2

The Office of the Assembly took a careful, stage-by-stage approach for the gradual increase of staffing levels within the Legislative Building and Precinct.

Additional measures introduced for Stage 2 included:

Discouraging in-person appointments: Conducting business whenever possible by phone or video conference to limit face-to-face contact.

Guidance for constituency offices: MPPs were given a best-practices guidance document for re-opening their constituency offices, developed in consultation with the Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health.

Ensuring physical barriers: Plexiglas shields were installed to protect employees and prevent people from walking directly to desks.

Wearing face coverings: As per the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s recommendations, where physical distancing is not possible, face coverings (non-medical masks) should be worn by anyone in the Legislative Precinct.

Avoiding meetings in confined spaces: Using boardrooms or large open spaces for all meetings. Reconfiguring rooms for physical distancing by limiting and spacing chairs.

Tracking visitors: Tracking of visitors to offices in order to facilitate contact tracing in the event of a case of COVID-19.

Establishing protocols for external vendors: Protocols were established for shredding vendors, water delivery and environmental cleaning services entering the Precinct.

  • Developing “clean office” protocols:
  • Having staff clean or wipe down their work surface at the start and end of their day.
  • Operating a clean desk practice, by removing personal and excess items to assist in cleaning procedures.
  • Wiping down multi-user photocopiers and printers after every use.
  • Wiping down meeting rooms and other shared spaces after every use.
  • Re-configuring kitchens and lunchrooms for physical distancing:
  • Cleaning and wiping down all amenities after each use.
  • Removing all shared cutlery and dishes.
  • Configuring tables, chairs and occupancy numbers to maintain physical distancing.
  • Encouraging staff to eat at their desk if sufficient space is not available.

Stage 3

In Stage 3, the Office of the Assembly will work towards a full return of staff and on-site delivery of the services of the Legislative Precinct. Public health and workplace safety will remain the top priority, while balancing the needs of the House and Committees.

As the loosening of public health measures at the provincial level continues successfully, the Assembly will consider how to safely:

Re-open: Open the Legislative Precinct to the public.

Relax restrictions: Relax the restrictions on public gatherings such as receptions, lobby days, public tours, demonstrations and attending the visitor’s galleries in the Chamber.

Continue protections: Continued protections for vulnerable populations and the continued practice of physical distancing, hand-washing and respiratory hygiene, and significant mitigation plans to limit health risks.

Support concerns: The Assembly will continue to support the concerns of Members, staff and visitors through clear and consistent communications and messaging.

Conclusion

We are living in exceptional times. Organizations are striving to be resilient and manage operations (remotely as applicable or required) during the pandemic, while and working towards the resumption of regular on-site operations of their respective workplace and services.

The staff of the Office of the Legislative Assembly have exceeded the challenge of implementing new and innovative methods for the delivery of Assembly services in the face of this unprecedented situation. We acknowledge their efforts and thank them.

Notes

1 Initially, “essential staff” included security personnel, cleaners, Shipping/Receiving and occasional visits from staff in other business areas (such as Procedural Services, Hansard and Broadcast and Recording) on an as-needed basis.