COVID-19: Some ‘problematic parks’ in Ottawa could see 9 p.m. closing times

A person rests on a bench at Mooney's Bay Beach in Ottawa, on Saturday, May 23, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. City staff might implement stricter closing times on the site and other parks in the city this summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The City of Ottawa is moving to allow staff and ward councillors to close some local parks at 9 p.m. in hopes of helping to enforce Ontario’s COVID-19 stay-home order.

Ottawa Public Health, meanwhile, teased a class order coming into effect later this week to put additional rules in place for park users.

City staff said in a memo Wednesday morning that “large public gatherings, parties and other activities” in local parks have put the public’s health at risk.

Staff have identified six to 12 parks in the city that could be subject to the earlier closing times, city manager Steve Kanellakos told reporters Wednesday, but the decisions will need sign-off from ward councillors before being put in place.

Read more: COVID-19 has changed. Should our outdoor behaviour shift too?

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After getting the all-clear, Ottawa parks and rec staff will post signage indicating the new rules in designated green spaces later this week and enforcement will begin over the coming weekend.

Ottawa’s deputy medical officer of health Dr. Brent Moloughney said in a technical briefing to media and councillors Wednesday afternoon that the local public health unit plans to issue a Section 22 class order before the weekend to address issues of crowding in parks, especially around public amenities such as play structures.

Moloughney said that while details of the order are still being finalized, he said it will likely be similar to the directive issued in the winter.

That order saw capacity limits and masks made mandatory around tobogganing hills, ski trail heads and skating rinks.

He flagged play structures, basketball courts and skate parks as likely targets for the summer.

Green spaces such as Mooney’s Bay and the federally managed Vincent Massey Park have been the subject of debate over the need for regulations this week after reports of disturbances in the area over the weekend.

River Coun. Riley Brockington, whose ward includes the aforementioned parks, said in an email to Global News Wednesday that he needs to “iron a few things out with staff” before instituting the earlier closing times. He was among those calling for a plan in Ottawa’s outdoor spaces this summer and pitched park capacities, an increased bylaw officer presence or curfews as possible solutions.

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Mayor Jim Watson had floated instituting a curfew of 8 p.m. in city-owned parks to curb erratic behaviour. Some ward councillors and members of the public pushed back against the idea as ineffective.

Read more: Quebec premier tells young people to ‘respect the rules’ as emergency COVID-19 measures extended

The latest version of the policy will put the power in ward councillors’ hands and would drop the current park closing hours to 9 p.m. from 11 p.m. Parks will still open at 5 a.m. even if measures are put in place.

Watson told reporters the targeted approach and 9 p.m. closing time was the suggestion of staff and represented “a very good compromise.”

Residents can be ticketed if they are in specified parks after 9 p.m. under the new regulation, even for walking through, but Ottawa’s emergency services general manager Anthony Di Monte said Wednesday that officers will use “discretion” to avoid penalizing people who aren’t causing problems.

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Di Monte added that while Vincent Massey Park is not under the city’s jurisdiction, the National Capital Commission, which manages the site, had told the city it will align its “posture” with Ottawa’s new approach.

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While parks are already limited to exercise-use only and gatherings of more than five people outdoors is prohibited under Ontario’s stay-home order, Di Monte said the earlier closing time — which he clarified is not a “curfew” — can help bylaw officers address disturbances before they escalate.

“This gives us a tool to intervene rapidly and not wait until 11 p.m., after dark,” he said in a media availability following a meeting of Ottawa city council.

Critics of the policy have pointed out that policies of reducing the hours for public spaces can be wielded against the city’s most vulnerable residents, including people who are homeless.

Di Monte noted that the provincial order has exemptions for the unhoused, and that bylaw will attempt to find shelter for these people rather than ticket them.

But members of Ottawa’s Black community are worried this is another policy that could be weaponized against racialized residents.

Read more: Ottawa petition seeks to end ‘the weaponization of 911 calls’ against Black, Indigenous, racialized people

Alicia-Marie LeJour, co-chair of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, told Global News this week that rules to restrict access to public spaces can contribute to the over-policing of Black bodies in the city.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already exposed these vulnerabilities locally, she said, citing the example of a Black man being punched by an Ottawa bylaw officer in a park last summer.

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LeJour said the coalition is concerned that the new park rules give hypervigilant residents another “control tactic” over Black people by calling 911 or bylaw on someone walking through a park at night.

She said there are no consequences for those who call the police on Black people without cause, turning emergency response into a tool that does more harm than good to the city’s most vulnerable.

“You are weaponizing a system that is intended to keep all individuals safe,” she said.

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Di Monte pushed back against characterizations that the policy could be used to target vulnerable residents and said bylaw officers know who the rules are intended to affect.

“This is about people that we saw last weekend, partying, having bonfires and drinking,” he said. “The officers understand, we all understand what this is about. This is about a public health emergency that we’re under.”

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LeJour also said that the policy compounds the public health risks tied to dense housing conditions facing many of Ottawa’s Black and Indigenous residents and people of colour in the city. Many people in these communities live below the poverty line in multi-generational homes, so cutting off access to green space can exacerbate the risks of COVID-19 transmission inherent in these neighbourhoods.

Read more: COVID-19 disproportionately affects Ottawa’s Black residents

“You’re now confining them into four walls and not giving them space to be outside and move around.”

She laid the blame for any undue impact from the policy at Watson’s feet, saying he has not stood up for issues affecting the Black community.

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