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Coronavirus: Toronto bylaw officers caught posing for photos with fenced-off cherry trees

Click to play video 'Toronto bylaw officers caught posing for photos with fenced-off cherry trees' Toronto bylaw officers caught posing for photos with fenced-off cherry trees
WATCH ABOVE: For weeks Toronto residents have been asked to make sacrifices and avoid groups, especially those who would like to see the city’s cherry blossoms. But photos showing bylaw officers enjoying cherry blossoms they’re keeping crowds away from have flagged an apparent double-standard. Matthew Bingley reports – May 8, 2020

While cherry blossoms are approaching full bloom in Toronto, residents have been encouraged to make sacrifices amid the pandemic and skip in-person visits to High Park.

However, photos sent to Global News appear to show bylaw officers skirting the rules they’re enforcing and the photos are raising eyebrows over an apparent double-standard.

City of Toronto bylaw officers can be seen in the photos posing in front of fenced off cherry trees in Trinity Bellwoods Park. While seemingly innocuous, the behaviour flies in the face of City-mandated public health measures in Toronto parks.

For more than a month, the City has cracked down on the use of park amenities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Playgrounds, dog parks, and exercise equipment are among the list of items blocked off and those caught using the items could face large fines.

READ MORE: Man who allegedly trespassed, caught on video at Toronto’s High Park cherry blossoms fined $1,150

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City officials have said they are in favour of education instead of enforcement, but dozens of tickets have been issued.

The City’s approach to cherry blossoms amid the pandemic has been widely panned by many as a heavy-handed approach to emergency measures.

In response to the photos, the city’s chief communications officer didn’t address a question about the possible message the photo of the bylaw officers could send to residents.

“These officers simply captured a brief collegial moment during these unprecedented times,” said Brad Ross.

Ross also said that photos can be deceiving and depth of field does always accurately depict what is going on in respect to physical distancing.

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“Be that as it may, bylaw enforcement officers are not subject to the physical distancing bylaw,” Ross said in a statement.

“The City thanks them for their hard work throughout this pandemic, and it thanks residents for their continued efforts to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”

A group of bylaw officers patrol Trinity Bellwoods Park.
A group of bylaw officers patrol Trinity Bellwoods Park. Submitted/Global News

Ahead of the bloom for popular cherry blossoms, the City opted to barricade High Park. Mayor John Tory said he asked staff for other options to keep the park open while still avoiding crowds. Tory said he was told the answer was “no.”

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Toronto police said a man was fined $1,150 for trespassing this week after he was caught on the city’s livestream in High Park.

In addition to the High Park closure, fences were placed around individual trees in Trinity Bellwoods Park. On Friday, groups of bylaw officers could be seen patrolling the park to enforce the City’s physical distancing standards.

Michael Bryant, the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, has been highly critical of the City’s approach to ticketing during the pandemic and said the photos display an abuse of power.

“The fact that they’re themselves violating the rules just demonstrates the absurdity of it all,” he said.

“It’s reflective of abuse of power that’s taking place by them in ticketing people in circumstances that seem to be driven more by this newfound power that they have and not at all based upon what’s required in the circumstances.”

Bryant said the photos also demonstrate a clear lack of professionalism for bylaw officers, adding they are held to a different level of account than police.

“Unlike police officers, there is no independent place to make complaints about bylaw officers,” he said.

Bryant said bylaw officers are normally tasked with enforcing property standards and their role during the pandemic has shown them to be underqualified.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Toronto’s High Park to temporarily close in effort to stop cherry blossom crowds

“They are tourists when it comes to law enforcement that involves discretion,” said Bryant, adding the civil liberties of residents are suffering as a result.

Bryant conceded that while capturing a double-standard, the photo also showed a light-hearted moment amid the pandemic. But he said a neighbourly approach hasn’t been extended to people living in the city.

“The truth is, that is not how they’ve been acting,” he said.

“They’ve been cracking down as if they were ‘Delta Force Cherry Blossom’ and that’s not the powers that they should have and that’s not the way it should have worked.”

Toronto’s Chief Communications Officer Brad Ross said the photo captured a brief moment of collegiality during unprecedented times.
Toronto’s Chief Communications Officer Brad Ross said the photo captured a brief moment of collegiality during unprecedented times. Submitted/Global News