An Ottawa city councillor says it's time for bylaw officers to get serious about enforcing COVID-19 restrictions after word that nearly 500 verbal warnings were issued over the weekend.
In a tweet on Monday, Ottawa Bylaw said verbal warnings were issued for mask violations, failure to respect physical distancing and for playing hockey, which is also prohibited.
Close to 500 verbal warnings issued at parks across #OttCity this weekend for mask violations, hockey and failure to practice physical distancing. It is imperative that residents follow the rules put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.https://t.co/g4Xm1rUiYj #OttNews pic.twitter.com/2rvLTg9wIq— Ottawa By-law (@OttawaBylaw) January 11, 2021
"It says to me that education and gentle reminding isn't working," Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan told CTV News Ottawa. "I don't want to have to call for ticketing. Bylaw officers don't want to have to ticket, but this is a safety issue. We're talking about COVID here. Our numbers are rising."
A class order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act came into effect in Ottawa on Friday, limiting capacity at outdoor amenities to 25 people. Physical distancing must be maintained and masks must be worn at all times within 15 metres (50 feet) of the edge of the ice surface. Masks are not mandatory while skating but are recommended.
The regulations also apply to gathering areas such as parking lots of outdoor recreational spaces and the top and bottom of toboggan hills and trialheads.
The class order says, "While the risk of transmission of COVID-19, on average, is greater in indoor spaces compared to outdoors, the risk of transmission is elevated in outdoor spaces when there is crowding, close contact, prolonged exposure and forceful exhalation."
Owners and operators of outdoor recreational amenities must post capacity limit signage and two metre physical distancing signage, along with signs reminding people to wear masks at all times.
"It is imperative that residents follow the rules put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19," Ottawa Bylaw said on Twitter.
In a statement to CTV News, Director of Bylaw and Regulatory Services Roger Chapman said officers chose not to hand out fines this weekend, but tickets are coming if rules continue to be broken.
"Bylaw opted to issue warnings over the weekend in order to allow residents to adjust to these new regulations. While officers continue to use their discretion, moving forward, those who fail to comply will be fined," Chapman said.
Chapman said officers also warned people who were playing hockey on stormwater ponds and dispersed crowds at several places.
"In several cases, officers were forced to ask all residents using the amenities to disperse as there were more than 25 people on site," he said. "In these cases, all residents complied with the officers’ requests."
Meehan expressed frustration on Twitter, urging Ottawa Bylaw to start handing out fines.
Ott bylaw issued 500 warnings over the wknd for large gatherings and no masks on rinks and toboggan hills. It’s time to start ticketing! Only thing that will get people to start following safety rules. @ottawacity @OttawaBylaw @BarrhavenEastCA @StonebridgeCA @RSCAssociation— Carol Anne Meehan (@MeehanCarolAnne) January 11, 2021
Speaking to CTV News, Meehan said she noticed people were not following the new measures when she was out this past weekend.
"I was out on the weekend. I visited a toboggan hill, a skating rink, and what I witnessed was a total disregard for the new regulations," she said. "I talked to some parents and they seemed to be not really concerned that their kids were supposed to be masked up and there was only supposed to be 25 people on the hill or on the rink."
Meehan said she doesn't want to see people get tickets, but she does want people to take the pandemic seriously.
"We've got to be serious about this and if it takes a fine to get people to wake up then so be it."
When the class order was first announced last week, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said the focus for enforcement would be on educating residents about the changing rules versus handing out fines.
"The principle here is we want to avoid crowding, even outdoors," Dr. Etches said. "We're not looking to be issuing tickets. We always start with our bylaw colleagues to make sure people understand because the rules change."
Bylaw did issue two charges under the Reopening Ontario Act this past weekend, one for a gathering at a private residence and one to a restaurant for mask violations.
"Several investigations in regard to complaints lodged over the weekend for social gatherings in private residences remain ongoing," Chapman said.