Toronto police opt for education over fines for ignoring social distancing

A bicycle police officer patrols Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Warm weather and a reduction in COVID-19 restrictions has many looking to the outdoors for relief. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto became the talk of the town on Saturday afternoon when images of a packed park showed a lack of physical distancing. On the afternoon, city officials estimated nearly 10,000 people stopped by the park, which is a cause for concern during a pandemic, but while there were calls on social media to ticket park-goers, Toronto Police admit they’re opting to not take a heavy-handed approach.

“For us as police officers we would prefer to engage with people in discussions that ensure compliance through education,” said Toronto Police spokesperson Meghan Gray.

While Ontario has yet to loosen restrictions which allow larger groups to form or encourage social bubbles, Gray noted they were cognizant that as the weather warmed up, they could see more people taking advantage of city amenities.

“As restrictions start to get lifted and the weather gets warmer we know that we’ll see more people use the green space, but again we hope people will make responsible decisions — which most of them are,” she said.

Tickets for failing to properly physically distance come with a $1,000 fine. This means people who are not from the same household should keep at least two metres of distance between each other. In early April, Toronto Police and the City of Toronto COVID-19 enforcement team led an enforcement blitz which resulted in 29 tickets being handed out and almost 2,000 people being warned. 

“The idea of the initial ticketing blitz is not out of the ordinary...more resources are marshalled to a certain thing and to showcase how much a problem it is,” said Andrew Furgiuele, an adjunct law professor at the University of Toronto.

“It’s done to show that more resources will be allocated and people should change their behaviour and hopefully educate the public that police will ticket for this.”

While Ontarians on social media were quick to call on police and the city to come down with the hammer on people, only four tickets were handed out for failing to maintain physical distancing. Furgiuele adds the sporadic ticketing can lead to some people taking advantage of the situation. 

“The drawbacks are that if the inconsistency remains, you may end up with members of the population who don’t take it as seriously,” he said.

Furgiuele adds that the initial announcement of the COVID-19 bylaws were used to try to outline the changing rules for the public, and for the most part it is working.

“Part of enacting the bylaw is to virtue signal to the public what needs to be done during the pandemic and quite frankly it’s worked for most people,” he said.

For those who are violating physical distancing laws, they’d have to typically showcase multiple times to police that they’re deserving of the $1,000 fine, according to police.

“In situations where we’ve seen multiple non-compliance, we’ll issue a ticket under the bylaw,” said Gray.

She noted that for police to walk into a situation and ticketing thousands of people is not advisable given the disparity in numbers coupled with an ongoing viral pandemic. Police said they issued eight tickets on the Saturday at Trinity Bellwoods, all of which were for public urination. 

Gray adds that anytime they put additional focus on certain parks where people were congregating and not socially distancing the following days the message does tend to hit home.

“There were thousands of people who gathered there on Saturday...as we had more officers and the conversation on social and mainstream media was going on, there was a noticeable difference in crowd size on Sunday,” she said.

Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe recommended people who were at Trinity Bellwoods park self-monitor for fourteen days and avoid being in contact with vulnerable people. Premier Doug Ford took it a step farther and recommended that every person who was there should go get tested.

Both Mayor John Tory and Police Chief Mark Saunders were spotted at the park speaking to park goers, and trying to explain why physical distancing was needed. The City of Toronto said they responded by assigning more bylaw and police officers to Trinity Bellwoods on Sunday as part of an education and awareness blitz.  

“Ensuring compliance through education and awareness remains the preferred method of engagement, but enforcement continues to take place if necessary,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email. 

Changes are possible, city admits

While Trinity Bellwoods is a hotspot for people to visit, the city said they hope people take advantage of other parks, many of which are experiencing far less traffic. 

“If a park is crowded when residents arrive, we encourage them to visit a different park, or come back at a later time. Nearby parks in the area that did not see the same crowding over the weekend include Stanley Park and Alexandra Park,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 21: People utilize social-distancing circles at Dolores Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, May 21, 2020. The Parks and Recreation Department painted the circles in the northernmost area of the park, but other areas have not been painted. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Torontonians may soon have physical distance measures literally drawn out for them, as the city is considering adopting socially-distanced circles like New York and California. .

“This will be piloted in Trinity Bellwoods Park, and staff will evaluate the effectiveness of this measure and may expand it to other destinations and high traffic parks in Toronto,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email.

Another option Furgiuele admits is that the city could institute having staff outside of parks and control the flow of traffic inside the park, so high traffic spots like Trinity Bellwoods don’t get overwhelmed.

“You’d need a great number of city employees out there at all times, and it could stretch a city’s resources quite thin as they go into debt,” he said.

While he understands the concept could result in a lot of manpower being used, Furgiuele notes it’s the best way to avoid too many people in close proximity in the park like last Saturday.

“It’s going to be more respectful of the citizenry than have the police come immediately, you’re still not in a place where the police are removed from the enforcement aspect, but this is a good option and limits large crowds” he said.