Thousands of dollars in fines issued for breaking COVID-19 rules

City of Ottawa bylaw officers issued roughly $100,000 in fines to people last month for allegedly violating park usage rules and other provincial emergency orders issued to stem COVID-19.

Ottawa bylaw officers handed out more than 100 tickets in April, totalling $100K

A person walks on the paths through Britannia Park on April 23, 2020. City of Ottawa bylaw officers issued about $100,000 in fines last month for violations of provincial emergency COVID-19 orders, although those fines can be appealed. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

City of Ottawa bylaw officers issued roughly $100,000 in fines to people last month for allegedly violating park usage rules and other provincial emergency orders issued to stem COVID-19.

That's according to data for the month of April released by the City to CBC News, showing the vast majority of bylaw infractions incurred at city parks.

Of the 110 tickets noted in the city's report, 94 were handed out at parks — but fines were also imposed upon non-essential businesses accused of staying open, as well as people allegedly gathering in groups of five or more in private residences.

Almost all of the fines were $880, although three people were given a second fine of $1,130 for obstructing someone "exercising [their] power in accordance with an order made during a declared emergency."

Restrictions now looser

The restrictions around park usage have since been loosened: as of early May, people can linger on the grass, toss down a blanket and have a picnic, or throw a ball back and forth — although amenities like playgrounds and benches remain strictly off-limits.

CBC asked for the complete list of tickets issued up until May 6, the date the park rules changed, but the City of Ottawa said that would not be available until early June.

New types of businesses have also been permitted to reopen since April, although the restriction on gathering sizes remains in place.

People picnic at Patterson Creek in Ottawa, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, on Sunday. Rules around park usage were loosened in early May. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Does ticketing work?

Tickets and fines issued for breaking Ontario's state-of-emergency legislation are actually provincial offences that can be appealed, even though provincial courts have not yet reopened.

While Ottawa bylaw officers are collecting fines, other Canadian municipalities and jurisdictions have chosen not to — and it's not clear yet that one approach is better at halting COVID-19 than the other, said Alexander McClelland, a post-doctorate fellow in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

As one example, the City of Kingston's bylaw officers have only issued warnings, not tickets, a spokesperson told CBC News.

"There is a range of criminological literature that highlights that fines are questionable in terms of their effectiveness," said McClelland, a member of the Policing the Pandemic project. "This [pandemic] has never happened before, and we don't even know if fines are effective at deterring speeding or drunk driving ... so why are fines being mobilized in this moment?"

Jurisdictions that are fining people, McClelland said, should at least be collecting other demographic information, including race-based data, in order to get a handle on any potential biases.

He worried increased bylaw enforcement would "disproportionately target" marginalized people.

"The people who do not have the luxury to have a home to stay home in, or who need to work to survive during the crisis and are out in the world — they're going to be putting themselves at greater risk for contracting COVID and at greater risk in the face of the onslaught of more policing," McClelland said.

Only what's needed for the ticket

City of Ottawa bylaw officers do not collect "demographic data" aside from what's required to fill out the ticket, said Roger Chapman, director of bylaw and regulatory services.

"This information includes name, date of birth, gender and address. This information is gathered based on the individual's driver's licence," Chapman said in an email to CBC News.

Bylaw officers have handled more than 4,300 calls for suspected COVID-19 rule-breaking since April 3, he said.

"We are compelled to take every measure to slow the spread of the virus and protect residents," Chapman said. "This is why it is imperative that the provincial orders are upheld for public health and safety."

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