Hamilton’s new physical distancing bylaw ‘needed’ to continue fight against COVID-19, says EOC

Hamilton's EOC director, Paul Johnson, mayor Fred Eisenberger and Dr. Elizabeth Richardson during a March 2020 press conference on COVID-19.
Hamilton's EOC director, Paul Johnson, mayor Fred Eisenberger and Dr. Elizabeth Richardson during a March 2020 press conference on COVID-19. Don Mitchell / Global News

The director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre says the city’s new physical distancing bylaw is not “a crusade to find people” less than two meters apart from one another.

Paul Johnson says the move was made to replace similar rules in the province’s state of emergency directive, which came to an end on July 24.

“They did pass legislation that has some, again, orders in place provincially and some protections in place, and there are some there for particularly indoor spaces,” Johnson told Global News.

“But it wasn’t comprehensive enough to cover all of the spaces that we think we just need to have some ability to enforce if necessary.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Hamilton to get $44.8M in 1st round of Ontario’s emergency funding

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The bylaw, which came into effect on Thursday, means people will need to keep a two-metre distance from others or risk fines of $500 for each occurrence. Individuals found obstructing an officer authorized to issue tickets could also face a fine of $500.

Johnson says despite the fines, it is a “voluntary compliance” order and encompasses beaches and outdoor gatherings.

“Those weren’t covered in what the province was moving forward with after July,” Johnson said. “Council agreed with us that we need this as part of our tool kit.”

In April, bylaw officers laid more than 100 charges in connection with suspected violations of the province’s Emergency Measures and Civil Protection Act during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: Hamilton bylaw officers have laid more than 100 charges tied to COVID-19 orders

Ken Leendertse, director of licensing and bylaw for the City of Hamilton, told councillors during a virtual town hall at the end of April that bylaw officers have encountered people at house parties, using dog parks and golf courses, and venturing out to the city’s many waterfalls, including Albion Falls and the Devil’s Punchbowl.

“The people that are coming to Albion Falls are mostly out-of-towners, but they want to come and see waterfalls,” Leendertse said.

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Since that time, Johnson says officers have altered their directive on tickets slightly, only issuing penalties when distancing rules are clearly being ignored or egregious.

“Taking the ticket and saying, ‘I don’t care,’ and then continuing on with the activity is not what we’re after,” Johnson said. “It’s about that education piece. So, we use the tickets only when we have to.”

Johnson says the public’s response to the city’s mask bylaw has been “very good” since its implementation in mid-July.

“I have found a very high level of compliance,” Johnson said. “My own visual experience, in terms of the places that I go, is that I can very rarely see anybody without a mask.”

Face coverings are mandatory while inside any space that is accessible to the public and non-compliance comes with a $200 fine.

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The bylaw is expected to be reviewed at the end of September.

Read more: Coronavirus: Hamilton joins regional municipalities in passing mandatory mask bylaw

The city did not implement an end date for the physical distancing bylaw, which is expected to be discontinued when the city deems it “no longer necessary,” according to the city.

The by-law does not apply to police officers, city employees or persons hired or engaged by the city to do work or perform services in a public space.

Hamilton has 34 active COVID-19 cases

Hamilton public health says the city has 34 active coronavirus cases as of Thursday. The city has 928 total cases since the pandemic began, and 45 COVID-19-related deaths with 34 connected to an institutional outbreak.

The city says 42 per cent of its confirmed positive cases in the last 10 days have come from people under the age of 30.

The city has no institutional outbreaks.