Ottawa

Dozens fined as city moves to enforce pandemic restrictions

Ottawa bylaw officers handed out 43 tickets to people flouting physical distancing rules on the weekend, making good on threats by Mayor Jim Watson that the city is ready to back up its tough talk with hefty fines.

Bylaw officers doled out 43 tickets on the weekend to people using parks, playground

Caution tape blocks people from using the playground at Lansdowne Park. The City of Ottawa has closed parks and playgrounds in an attempt to halt the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory illness. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Ottawa bylaw officers handed out dozens of tickets to people flouting physical distancing rules on the weekend, making good on threats by Mayor Jim Watson that the city is ready to back up its tough talk with hefty fines.

Officers issued 43 tickets on the weekend, including one to a barber shop that remained open and another to a man who tore yellow caution tape off a play structure so his children could use it.

The fines are "unfortunate but necessary to make sure people understand that we are all responsible to stop the spread of this deadly virus," Watson said Monday.

"Those who do not follow these provincial orders are putting people's health at risk and prolonging this public health crisis, and unfortunately many did just that weekend."

An expensive lesson

It's an expensive lesson, and an even costlier one for those who continue to resist. 

Watson gave the example of one man who was issued fines totalling $2,010 — $880 for remaining in a closed park and a further $1,130 for obstructing an officer when he failed to identify himself and became verbally aggressive.

We were sitting on a bench.- Alexandra Plante

People are permitted only to walk through a public park, but must observe physical distancing while doing so. Play structures, benches, picnic tables, ball diamonds, skateboard parks, off-leash dog enclosures, basketball and tennis courts are all off limits. 

Alexandra Plante, 23, said she's now paying the price for misunderstanding those rules. She was slapped with a $750 ticket on Saturday when she and a friend took a rest on a park bench during a walk.

"When [the bylaw officer] said 750, my friend and I just broke down because we realized that there was just, like, no way that we could handle that. We were sitting on a bench," Plante said.

Watch: Here is what you can and can't do in Ottawa's parks 

Jogging? Yes. Sitting on a park bench? No. The CBC’s Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco, with some help from Coun. Tim Tierney, outlines what is and isn’t allowed in the city’s public parks during the pandemic. 1:41

A bad time for a hefty fine

Both Plante and her friend were recently laid off from their jobs as servers at a restaurant in Orléans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plante said she and her friend were "respecting social distancing" during their walk in Aquaview Park, and sat down at opposite ends of the bench.

"I know that you need to make an example out of people, but ... we're going to suffer for this. This is the worst financial time for anybody, like ever. So to be giving out huge fines like this is just putting more of a stress on a stressful time," Plante said.

"We were outdoors, we thought that we were going to be OK. Obviously, it wasn't my best call, and I'm definitely paying for it."

The notice shows the fine of $750 plus a victim surcharge, for a total of $880. The stated offence is 'Fail to comply with order given during a declared emergency,' in contravention of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.

Plante said the bylaw officer gave the two women one ticket under Plante's name. She said she plans to contest the fine.

Here is a breakdown of the park closures in Ottawa. (City of Ottawa)

More warnings than fines

Anthony Di Monte, the city's general manager of emergency and protective services, noted the fines account for only a fraction of the 526 calls to which bylaw officers responded on the weekend.

"Most of the time it was education, and we continue to use judgment," Di Monte said Monday.

The city also announced Monday it's closing all facilities including parks and playgrounds until the end of June.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it's "very worried" about bylaw officers handing out large fines for something as simple as sitting on a park bench. Had the women been sitting on a bench that wasn't in a city park, they wouldn't have been ticketed.

You could land yourself a hefty fine for playing on swings, or sitting on the benches of a park in Ottawa. We hear some reactions to the new restriction. 8:04

Rules 'confusing'

"It certainly is confusing, and just the pace at which things are changing ... there is a lot for people to keep track of," said the association's Cara Zwibel.

"While 'ignorance of the law is no excuse' is the mantra in normal circumstances, when the law is changing on a daily basis ... I think it is reasonable that there are people who are confused about the boundaries."

Watch: Advocate says issuing fines in public parks 'not in the public interest'

Cara Zwibel, with the Canadial Civil Liberties Association, says issuing fines for hanging out in Ottawa's public parks may disproportionately affect certain groups of people and introduce new financial hardship. 1:34

Zwibel said she's concerned the fines will "disproportionately affect certain people," particularly those who lack access to their own outdoor space such as a balcony or backyard.

"It's much easier for someone with a large backyard to get outdoor time without coming to the attention of the authorities. But if you're someone who doesn't have that space, or if you're someone who doesn't have a home at all to stay in, you're certainly going to be someone who may come to the attention of the police," Zwibel said.

Zwibel said her advice to people who are stopped is to be "polite and comply," and to ask which rule they're breaking, where they can find that rule and how they can contest the fine if they choose.

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