Handling Ottawa's dire COVID-19 situation could use less carrot, more stick
We need to do something to flatten the curve now, but what is the city going to do?
"The situation in Ottawa is the worst that it has been to date during this pandemic."
That was the grim news that Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa's associate medical officer of health, delivered during a four-hour technical briefing Wednesday on the COVID-19 condition.
It was one bleak detail after another.
Cases are hitting sky-high records. More than 10 per cent of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive, indicating a higher level of community transmission than ever.
Worst still, almost 100 COVID-19 patients are in Ottawa-area hospitals, a volume that is expected to double within the next week or so. Already, locals' non-emergency operations have been cancelled due to staff shortages.
"We have never seen anything like this," said Moloughney.
And that's with provincial restrictions, including a stay-at-home order, already in place. So what else are city officials doing about it?
Closing a few parks a couple hours early and getting people to wear masks on basketball courts and at skate parks.
The disconnect between Moloughney's dire warnings about the COVID-19 situation and the actions being taken couldn't be more stark.
Mask to be mandated in certain park situations
Angered by reports of illegal gathering, drinking and littering in Vincent Massey Park last weekend, Mayor Jim Watson this week floated the idea of shutting all parks down by 8 p.m. in order to avoid late-night shenanigans. But there was virtually no take-up by councillors. Greenspace is needed for mental and physical well-being, they said, especially for those who don't have their own yards.
As most councillors told CBC by email, they're more concerned about the gatherings they're seeing in their local parks during the day time, whether it's a gang of kids playing soccer, a multi-family barbecue or young adults lounging on a city beach sharing chips, than anything happening after hours.
So the city settled on the reasonable plan to shut just a few of the larger parks where partying occurs at 9 p.m., and with the agreement of the local councillor.
That leaves the daytime gathering issues — and that's where Ottawa Public Health (OPH) comes in.
Moloughney said officials would bring in a Section 22 order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act by this weekend to make masks mandatory at certain popular park amenities, like basketball courts. The rules will be similar to those enacted this past winter, when OPH limited the number of people allowed on sledding hills and required masks be worn near skating rinks.
Make rules simple, hammer them home
Asked why he wouldn't just mandate masks in parks at all times — the way they are on, say, transit — Moloughney said OPH is "trying to be balanced" in its approach.
"Many times you can walk through a park and there's no one there or very few and it's very easy just to walk around each other and just have distancing."
While Moloughney's recommendation that people carry masks with them and put them on if it appears people are starting to gather may sound reasonable, it is not exactly foolproof.
More to the point, the less straightforward the rules are, the more people will flout them — or simply not understand them.
Wear a mask if you go to a park (unless you're a very small child or have a medical reason not to do so), is fairly simple to understand. Pull one out of your pocket and put it on when necessary provides a lot of leeway that we can't afford at this moment.
We are already having trouble understanding the rules.
Even Moloughney misspoke when asked by Coun. Glen Gower if people should get together with family and friends for an outdoor meal or a drink on lawn chairs in their driveways.
"There's a difference between what's allowed and what's a good idea," he said, adding that gatherings of five people outdoors are legal.
In fact, under the stay-at-home order, people may leave their residences only for essential purposes, and socializing isn't one of them. A spokesperson for Ontario's solicitor general confirmed that "individuals can gather in groups no more than five people, only for the reasons enumerated in the stay at home order. There are exceptions for certain religious gatherings."
Frankly, the language of the order could be more explicit about outdoor gatherings. It's no wonder the general public is confused.
We have spent the last year being told what's needed to flatten the curve. Considering it's not flattening now, perhaps what we need in this worrying moment is clear and simple rules to help bend this curve, repeated over and over again. Only do things with members of your household, and that includes outdoors. If you go out, wear a mask.
These rules aren't fun, but they're easy to understand. And, they'd be easier to enforce.
Step up enforcement
And as much as people are tired and frustrated by this seemingly neverending pandemic, it might be time for a little more stick and a little less carrot.
Last weekend, the city was overwhelmed by more than 420 calls from the public reporting volleyball games, large Airbnb parties and even churches violating COVID-19 regulations.
We've all seen plenty of evidence of groups enjoying the unseasonable weather that are clearly breaking the gathering rules.
Bylaw officers have seen them too, said DiMonte. And he agrees those activities — whether it's a volleyball game or a picnic — are illegal, but often his officers use their "discretion."
Given the amount of anger over current restrictions and the criticism the city came under last year for being too harsh with laying fines, that approach is understandable.
Still, a year ago, we were fining teenagers who were shooting hoops by themselves. Today, with situation far more alarming, fewer fines are being issued and the city cannot bring itself to mandate mask wearing in city parks.
Officials have often said that we cannot enforce our way out of the pandemic. But a year in, with case counts and transmission worse than they've ever been, isn't it worth trying to enforce our way out of the next few weeks, just a little?