Ottawa council passes mask bylaw with fines of $200 for violators

A couple wear masks while out for a walk in downtown Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, May 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa council passed a bylaw Wednesday making it mandatory to wear masks inside enclosed public spaces, a move that could see officers hand out $200 tickets to anyone failing to comply.

The temporary bylaw comes as the city prepares to enter Stage 3 of reopening amid the novel coronavirus pandemic later this week and after a similar order from Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and other regional health units mandating the use of face coverings when inside public spaces.

As was the case with the public health units’ order, Ottawa’s bylaw officers are instructed to use an educational approach first rather than defaulting to enforcement and penalties.

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It also provides exemptions for anyone with a medical condition or disability preventing the use of a face covering and children under the age of two. Masks can be removed to eat food or drink and to access services that require masks to be taken off.

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The council motion gives bylaw officers more discretion when handing out fines than the OPH directive, which was issued under Ontario’s emergency orders and would’ve carried with it a set $880 fine.

The new bylaw will see individuals contravening the act handed a minimum $200 ticket and business operators facing a $400 fine, with escalating amounts up to $100,000 should they continue to disobey orders. The city must still apply to the Ontario Court of Justice for final approval on the set fines.

The bylaw also instructs businesses to provide verbal reminders to anyone on their premises about the mask expectation.

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Capital Coun. Shawn Menard moved a motion Wednesday morning that would have seen the minimum fine lowered to $40, citing the disproportionate effect such a fine would have on vulnerable populations in Ottawa.

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The city’s head of bylaw and regulatory services, Anthony DiMonte, spoke against lowering the proposed fine that much, arguing it would not be a significant enough disincentive to improve compliance with the order.

He compared the proposal to set fine amounts of $100 for having a dog off-leash and $500 for a dog biting another person, and said the penalty for putting public safety at risk by not wearing a mask should be proportionate.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper countered DiMonte’s assertion that $40 would not have an impact on transgressors.

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“Forty dollars, for many people, is a lot of money. It is not an insignificant fine,” he said.

Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower also said suburban councillors like him might not be able to empathize with the city’s poorest constituents, but that Menard’s motion would have “symbolic” value in recognizing the financial hardship facing many Ottawa residents.

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Mayor Jim Watson urged councillors to vote against Menard’s motion.

He compared the prospective penalty for not wearing a mask to the tickets issued by photo radar cameras that went live in Ottawa school zones earlier this week.

He said people who don’t want to get ticketed for speeding shouldn’t speed, and those unable to pay the fine should wear a mask.

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“Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, the lesson and the message is, ‘If you don’t want to get fined, wear a mask.’”

Watson added that city council should not “pander” to activist groups.

Menard’s motion was ultimately defeated in an 8-14 vote.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, told council Wednesday that masks are increasingly important as the city prepares to enter Stage 3 of the province’s reopening framework on Friday morning, which will see dine-in restaurants, movie theatres and other indoor spaces allowed to open.

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She noted that 42 per cent of coronavirus cases identified by OPH currently have no confirmed link to travel or a confirmed case, which means the virus is still being transferred by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic residents in the community.

Etches said she understands the frustration some residents are feeling with being asked to wear a mask, but urged everyone to continue the positive work that has led to decreasing hospitalizations and virus outbreaks in Ottawa.

She cautioned that otherwise, we might see a resurgence of cases similar to recent spikes across the United States.

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“This is a small restriction on our freedom to have a big gain for the kinds of services we can access,” she said.

“I agree that the word ‘mandatory’ feels heavy,” Etches acknowledged, but added that OPH’s voluntary directives asking residents to wear masks wasn’t successful enough to avoid the need for a bylaw.

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OPH has added a section to its website detailing the latest evidence in favour of wearing masks to curb the spread of the virus.

The mandatory mask rules will be in effect in Ottawa until the end of city council’s summer break on Aug. 26, at which point the bylaw could be extended further based on OPH advice.

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