Return of students was tipping point for Kingston park changes, says mayor

The return of post-secondary students to Kingston, Ont., led the city's mayor to sign an emergency declaration closing a popular hangout spot near Queen's University.

Breakwater Park beach, Gord Edgar Downie Pier closed for the rest of the season

City of Kingston staff close the Gord Downie pier at Lake Ontario after people failed to social distance while at the park, in Kingston, Ont., on Saturday. Sept. 5, 2020. The park is now closed due to COVID-19 and there will be a $500 fine for anyone that enters. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

The return of post-secondary students to Kingston, Ont., led the city's mayor to sign an emergency declaration closing a popular hangout spot near Queen's University.

Kingston Police and local health officials had been watching the beach area at Breakwater Park and Gord Edgar Downie Pier this summer for large crowds, Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson told CBC's All in a Day on Tuesday.

But last week, once students began to return to the city, Paterson said the popular swimming and picnic spot on Lake Ontario quickly became overcrowded.

The gatherings prompted concerns about COVID-19 transmission and on Saturday, Paterson issued the order to close the beach area down.

"It was just the volume of people. There were just too many people down there," he said.

Until now, the city's strategy had been to use education to discourage overcrowding anywhere in the city, including at the pier. But the recent crowds made it clear a stricter approach was needed, said Paterson.

"It's just always been a natural place for people to congregate," he said.

"The influx of students just created an additional number of people that wanted to use it."

Young people gather at the Breakwater Park, near Gord Edgar Downie Pier, without any physical distancing in Kingston, Ont., Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Ticketing the larger gatherings wasn't an option, he said: there were simply too many people at the pier to enforce the rules with fines.

Paterson said the closure forces people to seek out different outdoor spaces and spread out more evenly..

"People have been really good in the community about physical distancing," he said.

Mayor of Kingston Bryan Paterson during an interview with The Canadian Press Aug. 18, 2020. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

The day before that change, Kingston tightened physical distancing rules in all its municipal parks.

People older than 16 who do not live together must stay two metres apart in city parks, even if they are in the same social bubble. That includes the rest of Breakwater Park, which remains open.

Anyone caught breaking the new rules can be fined $500 for failing to comply with an emergency order.

The changes last for four weeks, or until Oct. 2, but can be extended or cancelled.

With files from CBC Radio's All In A Day

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