Three new COVID-19-related deaths in Toronto, health officials say

A sign advising users of a Vaughan playground that it has been closed to limit the spread of COVID-19 is shown. (City of Vaughan)

Toronto public health officials have confirmed three new COVID-19-related deaths in the city.

The city's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said the deceased patients include an elderly man with a pre-existing condition who was tested at North York General Hospital and two residents of Seven Oaks long-term care in Scarborough.

The total number of COVID-19 patients in Ontario has risen to 688, as health officials confirmed 100 more cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday.

The news comes after the city announced that facilities within the more than 1,500 parks across Toronto, including playgrounds, sports courts, and leash-free dog parks, are being shut down in an efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Mayor John Tory said the closures, which come into effect immediately, impact all playgrounds, outdoor fitness equipment, sports courts, leash-free zones, picnic shelters, sports fields, skateboard parks, and other parks amenities.

“This decision was not made lightly. It was a very difficult decision but it is the right decision. As mayor, I know how important our parks are to area residents. They are the hearts of so many of our neighbourhoods across the city. They are some of the best parts of our city,” Tory said Wednesday.

“And especially now when people are so confined, children and adults alike and even dogs, our parks are so important as a place to relax, a place to play, a place to just get some relief from the unprecedented conditions in our city.”

But Tory said park areas are also gathering places and the more people gather, the more the virus will spread in the community.

“We must keep our distance, at least two metres or six feet, from our friends and from our neighbours right now in order to flatten the curve and avoid overwhelming our health care system,” Tory said.

Today, the City of Toronto is announcing that all City-owned playgrounds and other parks amenities will be closed effective immediately, as part of our continuing efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. https://t.co/tvXeZqUB9C

— John Tory (@JohnTory) March 25, 2020

“As much as it will cause further discomfort and disruption, the steps we are taking today are based, as we have based all of our decisions throughout this trial, around protecting the public.”

The City of Toronto previously installed signage at some of its playgrounds, warning residents to respect social distancing guidelines. Tory said staff will immediately begin posting signs about the closures so residents "understand that it is not safe for them to gather there right now."

Speaking at a news conference at city hall on Wednesday afternoon, Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said locks will be placed on areas where fencing and gates exists. He said signs will be placed on unfenced playgrounds and structures will be taped off.

Parking lots associated with city-owned parks will also be closed along with city-owned allotment gardens and community gardens.

Pegg said people who defy the order by trying to access the areas could face fines of up to $5,000, depending on the nature of the offence.

"City staff continue to monitor compliance with the orders that have been issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic emergency," Pegg said. "While our preference is always to educate before we enforce, we have issued fines for non-compliance with orders and we will continue to do so as required."

He said Toronto police will be called in to help enforce the closures if necessary.

The decision to close the city facilities was made on the recommendation of Dr. Eileen de Villa.

De Villa told reporters Wednesday that she’s recommending that all amenities also be closed in condo buildings and other facilities.

Vaughan also closing facilities within parks

The move comes hours after the mayor of Vaughan announced that playgrounds, sports fields, tennis courts, dog parks and all other facilities located within parks in that city would close.

The more restrictive measure comes after city officials warned residents to avoid playgrounds on March 21 since their surfaces aren’t regularly disinfected.

“People were still gathering in bigger numbers than they should be and basically not respecting themselves and also the community so we needed to send a strong message that we don’t tolerate that kind of behaviour,” Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua told CP24 on Wednesday morning. “We are following the best science and knowledge that is available and trying to do our best at our level of government to reduce this transmission.”

Bevilacqua told CP24 that signage is being installed to notify residents about the closures.

He said that should residents still be seen using parks and playgrounds despite the closures, bylaw enforcement officers will be brought in to enforce the order.

“I think it is important that we begin to ramp up a little bit more on the discipline side because this is a serious time in our city that requires extraordinary measures,” he said. “Let’s not turn this into a crisis and then act. Let’s be proactive and do what we can given the powers we have here at the city.”