A run with friends? A distanced drink? Let's dig into Ontario's opaque gathering rules

The province ordered us all to stay home as of Thursday, albeit with a raft of exceptions, including one that says we can gather outdoors in groups of five. But not for just any reason. The rules require a little explaining.

Groups of 5 can gather outside, but not to socialize

‘Stick to the basics’: Cut down on close contact with others, Ottawa Public Health says

1 year ago
Duration 0:58
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, says Ontario’s pandemic restrictions are simple when you consider the basic message — “stay away from others” to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Despite Premier Doug Ford's assertion that there's no confusion about Ontario's new stay-at-home order, there's been head-scratching over some of the restrictions that came into force Thursday.

You should remain chez vous unless it's to go out for an essential reason, yet non-essential businesses are open — meaning you can leave home to pick up your non-essential goods at the curb. 

Everyone who can work at home should, but the government has also left up to employers — including those who run non-essential businesses — to decide who is required to come into the workplace in person.

And while we're supposed to spend time only with our own households to try to halt the worst COVID-19 spread since this pandemic began 10 months ago, the province is allowing gatherings of up to five people outdoors.

This last item seems both contradictory and poorly explained. Is that outdoor gathering allowed only within a household? Can you have an outdoor drink with a couple of friends, as long as you're distanced? How about a walk?

Ford told reporters this week: "It's very simple. Stay. Home." But when it comes to the rules around gatherings, it's anything but.

Outdoor gatherings of 5 only

The limit on how many people can gather outdoors was lowered to five earlier this week, but this rule doesn't appear in the stay-at-home order

Instead, the social gathering limits were laid out in the Dec. 26 restrictions that all-but-forbid any indoor gatherings and set a five-person limit for outdoor events. (If you want to check, the rules are in Ontario Regulation 82/20, Schedule 4, section 1 (c).)

Those regulations don't specify that all five people need to be from a single household, although health officials keep pleading for us to limit our contacts.

So what's to stop five friends from gathering — two metres apart, as recommended — around a fire or for a drink in the driveway or back deck?

The stay-at-home order.

People walk and run along a path in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2021, the first day of a provincewide stay-at-home order. Exercise is a permitted exemption under the new rules. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

We are only allowed to leave home for essential reasons such as going to the grocery store or pharmacy, accessing child care and other forms of caregiving, or participating in outdoor exercise. Meeting up to socialize is definitely not an exemption under the new order.

For those looking for loopholes — which is not something we encourage in any way — using exercise for a reason to gather may be tempting. In the most technical reading of the rules, five people could go for a run together. 

The thought appeared to slightly horrify Ottawa's medical officer of health.

"I would question going for a run with four different people," Dr. Vera Etches told CBC. "That's not necessary right now."

Then there are walks. Does that count as exercise? Of course. But what if you're strolling leisurely along with a couple of pals, sipping a latte?

Depending on the circumstances, a walk could be considered socializing, and hence not an allowable reason to leave home, a fine line that's left to the authorities to draw.

Enforcement not increasing — much

But officers are unlikely to bring the force of the provincial order down upon you for a stroll with friends.

Police forces and bylaw services across the province have made it clear they're not about to start stopping people on the street or in their cars for the sole reason of asking them why they aren't at home.

For one thing, the stay-at-home order doesn't allow them to do so. 

And Ottawa's officials don't seem inclined to bring down the hammer these days — at least not much. 

WATCH | Ottawa police won't conduct random stops, deputy chief says

Ottawa police won’t be conducting random stops to enforce stay-at-home order, deputy chief says

1 year ago
Duration 0:50
Deputy Chief Steve Bell says officers won’t be pulling vehicles over or stopping people on the street to enforce the provincial stay-at-home order.

Their enforcement is largely driven by complaints. On Thursday, the first day of the order, the city's bylaw department received 55 calls, a number that included requests for information but also complaints about social gatherings, open non-essential businesses and residents not abiding by the order.

They issued two fines of $880 each for indoor social gatherings at private residences, along with three warnings: two for not complying with mask rules and one for a non-essential business that was open.

Bylaw officers, and to a lesser extent police, may disperse crowded hilltops where groups are jammed together waiting for their turns to speed down — not only is there a 25-person limit on toboggan hills, through a local order, but each group (of not more than five people) is also supposed to be two metres away from other people. 

Ottawa's bylaw department fielded 55 calls on the first day of the stay-at-home order, and laid two $880 charges for indoor social gatherings. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Following the 'spirit' of the order

 And anyway, says Etches, policing won't improve our numbers.

"Enforcement is not ever what turns the curve," she said. "It's people's commitment to protect each other and themselves."

Ottawans have shown they're willing — or at least willing "enough," Etches qualified — to do the right thing: limit close contacts, keep physical distance, wear masks. There are already tiny glimmers that the COVID-19 indicators are beginning to turn.

What's needed to keep bringing our numbers down, then, is not a meticulous parsing of the technicalities, no matter what we think of the wisdom of the rule itself.

Etches says we need to follow the "spirit" of the stay-at-home order. If someone needs to meet a friend for a walk to combat loneliness, then they should do that. 

The rest of us would do well to follow the premier's stay-at-home self-test: "If you're not sure if a trip is absolutely essential, it probably isn't." 


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.