TORONTO — Ontario police forces said Monday that they’ll focus on educating the public about following new COVID-19 measures after the government expanded their powers in an effort to combat the pandemic’s third wave.
The public became outraged after Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said on Friday that police would have the power to stop anyone and ask why they were outside their homes during an extended stay-at-home order.
Police forces and chiefs quickly said they would not stop people at random to check on their comings-and-goings.
The government reversed course a day later _ officers must now have grounds to suspect a violation of stay-at-home orders before being able to demand information _ and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said Monday that people should not be afraid to go outside.
“Random checks, to us, it’s ineffective, unenforceable and it’s unethical,” association spokesman Joe Couto said in an interview. “We are not interested in that kind of enforcement.”
Forces will instead focus their enforcement efforts on gatherings of more than five people, he said.
Under the new rules, outdoor gatherings are restricted to members of the same household _ people who live alone can join another household _ and all outdoor recreational facilities such as sports fields and golf courses will be closed.
The government initially said on Friday that children’s playgrounds would also be closed, but reversed course on that provision a day later after an outcry from parents and health experts.
On Monday, police services also began enforcing restrictions that limit interprovincial travel by setting up checkpoints at borders.
The border control left long lines of cars in Gatineau, Que., as drivers sought to get into Ottawa.
Bill Dickson, a spokesman for the Ontario Provincial Police, said it had set up checkpoints in about 10 border locations along both the Quebec and Manitoba border.
Municipal forces, like the one in Ottawa, will enforce the border rule in their jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, Couto said while he, the association board and some chiefs had been in touch with the government ahead of Friday’s announcement, they had not known about the new _ now rescinded _ power to stop anyone to ask why they were outside their homes.
“While we were aware there were a number of things they were considering, we really found out once the premier made the announcement,” Couto said.
Once police leaders were briefed, they raised a number of concerns to the province on Friday, especially about the powers to stop anyone, Couto said.
“We said you need to provide us with what the emergency order says and then we will act,” he said. “That didn’t come, they had to revise it, so we didn’t get that until later on the in the weekend.”
Couto said many front-line officers had questions about how to do their jobs in light of the new restrictions.
“Our officers were confused, some asking ‘do I just pull over cars randomly? How does this work?”’ he said.
“Large outdoor gatherings is what we’ll focus on, not random stops, not individuals walking down the street.”
Couto said police are doing their best to allay fears among the public.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t be in parks. I have a dog, I’m in the park two to three times a day with her and bylaw officers or police officers won’t interact with me unless she’s off the leash,” he said.
“This is a health issue for us, it’s not a criminal issue _ it’s very important to distinguish that.”
Dickson, with the OPP, said his force will enforce the new laws but wouldn’t be “heavy-handed” about it.