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COVID-19: Ottawa mayor calls for crackdown on park gatherings

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says he's calling park authorities together on Monday to address reports of large gatherings in local parks over the weekend during Ontario's stay-home order. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is convening a meeting of city staff and federal park authorities on Monday to address reports of outdoor gatherings in the nation’s capital amid Ontario’s COVID-19 stay-home order over the weekend.

Among the disturbances was a stabbing in the area of Mooney’s Bay Park around 6 p.m. on Saturday night.

Ottawa police confirmed to Global News they responded to a call in the 2900 block of Riverside Drive that evening and located a 17-year-old boy who had been stabbed. The victim was transported to hospital with non-life-threatening conditions, police said.

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Two teens, aged 16 and 17, were charged with assault. Both were released on undertakings to appear in court at a later date.

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Bylaw officers were called to Mooney’s Bay three times for complaints between Friday and Sunday, according to a statement from bylaw and emergency services director Roger Chapman. One of those calls resulted in a charge under the provincial stay-home order for a group playing a team sport, he said in a statement to Global News.

Photos meanwhile surfaced on social media Sunday morning of leftover trash and beer bottles found in nearby Vincent Massey Park.

 

The images prompted a response from Watson on Twitter, calling the scene “completely disgraceful & unacceptable behaviour.”

While residents are permitted to gather in parks in groups of up to five people under Ontario’s stay-home order, people are asked to wear masks and remain within their households to limit possible spread of the coronavirus.

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Watson is scheduled to have a call Monday with city staff and representatives from the National Capital Commission, which manages the federally owned Vincent Massey Park, to discuss enforcement of the stay-home order, according to a statement from his press secretary.

The NCC told Global News in a statement that the Crown corporation sent a conservation officer to the park after being notified of the issue via its emergency line on Sunday.

“Our team moved quickly to clean up the site and we are now focused on coordinating with The City of Ottawa and Ottawa Public Health to determine what, if any additional steps may be required,” the NCC said via email.

Read more: Parents look for spring break activities during Ontario’s stay-at-home order

River Coun. Riley Brockington, whose ward includes the aforementioned parks, told Global News on Monday he received no shortage of complaints from residents over the weekend, including the “early morning walkers” who were first to come across the litter in Vincent Massey Park.

Brockington said scenes like the ones in his ward’s parks over the weekend are angering his constituents, the “vast majority” of whom he says have been following public health directives for the past 13 months.

“They see multiple examples of blatant behaviour where people are not adhering to the public health guidelines and that upsets them. That gets their blood boiling and that’s why my inbox, all weekend, was full,” he said.

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The River Ward councillor said he’s adamant that green spaces across Ottawa should stay open to the public this summer as a chance for people to get fresh air and exercise, but he draws the line at people using parks as places to meet up with friends.

With the second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic approaching, Brockington believes the city can do better than a “reactionary” approach to regulating outdoor spaces. He said he’s called on local police, bylaw, public works and parks and recreation services to come up with a plan for how restrictions will be enforced in large parks across the city this summer.

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“We’ve still got some time to go through this pandemic before it gets better. And I don’t want to see people shuttered in their homes any longer than they have to, but at the same time, people can’t just freely meet in parks in larger numbers,” he said.

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“There’s gotta be a much better strategy in 2021 than in 2020.”

Last year, city staff followed Toronto’s example by painting physical distancing circles in the grass at Mooney’s Bay to give residents localized areas to socialize outdoors.

Brockington said the white circles were a “bit of a novelty” last year but were difficult to maintain, and adding that he doesn’t think city staff will be painting them again.

Read more: Ottawa reports 348 new COVID-19 cases following record-setting weekend

Brockington said human resources could be one solution, such as increased presence of bylaw officers, permanent park ambassadors or parking attendants who prime visitors with information before they enter the site. He noted, however, that bylaw is already stretched thin for resources in the pandemic.

Other measures could see capacities or even curfews placed on parks to nip any late-night large gatherings in the bud.

Education efforts such as signage, or even taking advantage of the speaker system at Mooney’s Bay to put out hourly public-service announcements, could also play a role, the councillor suggested.

But while he thinks bylaw officers should have “discretion” on how they enforce the stay-home order, Brockington said that fines should be used in “egregious cases” such as people hosting house parties.

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“Thirteen months in, COVID numbers are through the roof, people are deliberately meeting and putting the risk of transmission on the front burner? Then they need to be charged, absolutely,” he said. “Ignorance of the laws is not an excuse at this point.”

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