Bodine Waterfire is starting to feel like a criminal every time she takes her dog for a walk.
“I’m looking around, my eyes are darting, I kind of crouch down low because there’s a fence; I’m like, maybe they won’t see me,” Waterfire said.
Waterfire, 50, who lives in the Centretown neighbourhood of Ottawa, said she’s been reprimanded by the city’s bylaw officers the last three times she’s taken her dog to McNabb Park, despite not breaking any physical distancing rules.
The first two times, she alleged bylaw officers chided her and her neighbours when they’d stopped to chat, standing far apart with their dogs. The third time, she said a bylaw officer came up behind her to tell her to keep walking, despite there not being anyone else in the park.
“I’m walking through, I’m not near anybody, I’m with a dog,” Waterfire said. “Why are you up my ass?”
Waterfire isn’t the only one who feels the park rules surrounding COVID-19 mitigation are heavy-handed.
Toronto criminal lawyer Dylan Finlay was fined $880 for doing chin-ups at Centennial Park on Tuesday. Unlike other nearby amenities, the chin-up bar wasn’t clearly marked with signs saying it was off-limits.
Finlay said he will fight the ticket in court, arguing that it’s unconstitutional and that the city is at fault due to the lack of signage. He said overzealous enforcement alienates people who are genuinely doing their best to follow government guidelines.
“It’s going to frustrate people like me and sort of erode that goodwill for social distancing, which is the strongest weapon we have,” Finlay said, adding that being overly strict about parks could result in people congregating indoors instead, which is less safe.
Jurisdictions around the world have shut down or severely limited the use of public parks in an effort to increase physical distancing and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some Canadian provinces, such as Alberta and Manitoba, are keeping provincial parks open with limitations, while they are completely closed in Ontario and B.C.
Cities are regulating local park use, but the rules still aren’t clear to everyone.
In Ottawa, you can only walk through parks, though Mayor Jim Watson threatened to shut them down completely if people aren’t obedient. One woman who was fined $750 for resting on a bench during a walk told the CBC she was recently laid off and can't afford the expense.
In Toronto, all park amenities are closed and people who aren’t from the same household can’t be less than 2 metres apart. Last Saturday, Mayor John Tory called for “stricter enforcement” via fines of up to $1,000 for breaking a bylaw or $100,000 for violating a provincial order. Nearly 300 tickets and more than 400 warnings have been issued.
In statements to VICE, both Toronto and Ontario officials maintained that parks are no longer destinations. The city said people can walk or run there and then keep moving.
Meanwhile, in Vancouver, people are still being encouraged to enjoy parks while maintaining physical distancing. Stanley Park and beaches are closed to car traffic. In a press conference earlier this week, B.C. health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said it’s OK to go for a walk or even have a picnic with your family members.
Francoise Baylis, a university research professor at Dalhousie University, said the problem is even if one person sits down to read a book in a park far from others, someone could come along and breach that 2-metre barrier.
Authorities are trying to balance people’s rights to walk around with their rights to not have their space invaded.
“What happens is you get a rule that seems to some very draconian,” Baylis said.
Still, it’s hard to grasp why people are being fined or nagged for doing something as simple as sitting on a bench alone or walking a little too slowly.
Baylis said at this point, governments are doing what they think is best in a crisis context.
“The reality of it is when you don't know and you want to play it safe, you’re going to overreact,” she said. “Far better than you’ve overreacted and you’ve made a mistake and you can pull back than you didn’t react in time and now you feel like you’ve got blood on your hands.”
Baylis said the enforcement strategy isn’t sustainable long-term. As people become more educated about physical distancing, and as the weather gets better, cities will have to find ways to make green spaces accessible. That could mean marking one-way paths, having set times for different demographic groups to use parks, closing down vehicle paths to make more space, having greeters at parks to remind people of physical distancing measures, or even having phone apps that beep to let us know when we’re standing too close to another person.
Farah Mawani, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research health system impact fellow at Unity Health Toronto, said not having access to parks is detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health. It’s particularly important for people who don’t have outdoor space at home and those isolating alone.
Mawani is also concerned that enforcement could disproportionately be applied to marginalized communities, including homeless people and people of colour. A Black man in Ottawa alleged a bylaw officer punched him in the face at a park while issuing him fines at a park.
“When people feel they’re being discriminated against by authorities, by government in particular, that has a more dramatic impact on their mental health,” Mawani said.
She said to maintain public trust, authorities need to clearly communicate why they are implementing various restrictions.
Samuel Mason, 30, was sitting on a bench in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park last week when he was approached by a bylaw officer who told him to move along and “consider himself lucky” that he wasn’t being fined. Mason, who said the park was pretty empty at the time, hadn’t realized that a bench is considered an amenity and is therefore banned.
The city told VICE benches can potentially spread the virus because people can sneeze and cough on them and they aren’t sanitized. While the city has not outright banned sitting on the grass, it has discouraged it, though it wouldn’t elaborate why besides stating that parks aren’t destinations.
Mawani said there needs to be more of a focus on activities people can safely do, as opposed to everything that’s been banned.
After a long winter of being cooped up in their townhouse, Waterfire and her kids and dog are itching to be outside.
She’s worried that gardening in the communal space in front of her townhouse or even catching up with her neighbour on their shared stoop may be an issue. Earlier this week, Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa’s associate medical health officer, discouraged chatting with neighbours from the driveway or back yard, a position that was later reversed by the city’s chief health officer.
“It feels like tyranny at this point,” Waterfire said. “Are they going to start rolling in the tanks?”
Like many Canadians, she said she is trying her best to follow the rules, even though she's never cared much for rules. But she feels the enforcement blitz is adding another indignity to an already grim situation.