Ottawa Public Health is in the process of drafting a class order to limit the number of people who can gather at outdoor recreational amenities.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches says images of large crowds at places such as skating rinks and tobogganing hills is cause for concern.

"I will be issuing a class order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to all residents of Ottawa and all people responsible for the ownership and operation of outdoor recreational spaces," Dr. Etches said.

The order, which is expected to be issued Tuesday or Wednesday, would cap the number of people on skating rinks or in gathering sites such as parking lots, trailheads or the top and bottom of hills at 25.

Dr. Etches said she understands the importance of physical activity, and she encourages people to get outside and be active and celebrate winter, but cautioned residents to do it safely.

"I do encourage people to get outside and enjoy the beautiful winter amenities in Ottawa safely. We just need to remember that, even outdoors, physical distancing is important and let's avoid places that are too crowded."

Enforcement still focused on education

Dr. Etches and Emergency and Protective Services General Manager Anthony Di Monte said bylaw officers will be focused on educating residents about the new rules over handing out fines.

"The principle here is we want to avoid crowding, even outdoors," Dr. Etches said. "The enforcement is enabled under provincial legislation and can be upheld by bylaw officers, which is usually the first group that has been helping us with more of an educational approach. We're not looking to be issuing tickets. We always start with our bylaw colleagues to make sure people understand because the rules change."

Di Monte said bylaw officers have the discretion to issue tickets, if required.

"Our officers always use discretion," he said. "The objective here is to achieve our public health goals and protect our community; it's not about giving out tickets but, if we have to, that's part of the enforcement tool that is available to us."

City sports commissioner Coun. Mathieu Fleury told Newstalk 580 CFRA's "Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron" that he wants to see City staff at rinks and other city properties to ensure the rules are being followed, similar to the park ambassador program last spring. 

"I think that was an effective tool to make sure everyone was aware of the approach and specifically on city property, we have that additional responsibility," Fleury said. "Just being on site, having conversations with residents and if there are more than 25 people on the ice, addressing that."

What about the Canal?

The largest skating rink in the world, the Rideau Canal Skateway, is a popular destination every winter. Dr. Etches said the Skateway is a special case and her team is working with the National Capital Commission on how best to ensure safety on the ice.

"When it comes to the Rideau Canal, it's not your typical skating rink, so the 25 wouldn't make sense, but avoiding crowding would," Dr. Etches said. "We will be working with the NCC and helping with their signage and their instructions and what they can do to minimize crowds."

Di Monte praised the NCC for working with Ottawa Public Health to develop safety protocols on their properties.

The NCC told CTV News in an email that some changes will be coming to the Skateway experience this year.

"Sanitization stations will be installed, masks will be required inside the changing and washroom facilities, in which capacity will be limited. Skaters will also need to carry their belongings when skating as the cubbies often used by skaters to store their belongings will be eliminated in the changing facilities." the NCC said. "We are counting on the collaboration of users to comply with the newly issued measures as well as those we have all known for several months: frequent hand washing, maintaining a distance from others, wearing a mask when required or when social distancing is momentarily impossible."

The Skateway is not yet safe for the public. The NCC says still waiting on consecutive days of cold weather before it opens.

In a statement to Newstalk 580 CFRA, the Ministry of Canadian Heritage said Winterlude is scheduled to take place this year, but staff are still working with partners to determine programming and health and safety protocols.

"Winterlude will take place from February 5 to 21, 2021. The format and programming will be announced in due time," the statement said. "Canadian Heritage is currently consulting with its partners and will ensure that public health and safety measures are followed for Winterlude 2021."

City in the red zone

Ottawa Public Health's COVID-19 key monitoring indicators are trending in the "red" zone, with more than 70 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days and with hospitalizations on the rise.

Dr. Etches warned that hospitalizations in Ottawa have nearly doubled in the past week, and added that if the trend continues, it could put other care, such as surgeries, at risk.

"The hospitalizations are not just people in long-term care and retirement homes," Dr. Etches said. "At this moment, all of the hospitalizations are people who are coming from the community and include people in their 20s, 50s, and 60s. This is a problem right now. The level of COVID-19 in our community has caused hospitalizations to go up."

She said going from 10 to 20 people in a week is manageable, but if that trend continues, 20 becomes 40 next week and 40 becomes 80 the week after that.

"That is not manageable, and that leads to the cancellation of surgeries and challenges with getting emergency care," she said.

Dr. Etches is encouraging all residents to go back to the basics of staying home, keeping the number of close contacts as low as possible, physically distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands. 

A 28-day provincewide shutdown that began Dec. 26, 2020 remains in effect.