Toronto Police's social distancing fines in public an 'ineffective' approach, lawyer says

Physical distancing is not just a fruitless suggestion any longer, and the city of Toronto is clamping down on those who are willingly disobeying health recommendations. Over the course of the past weekend, Toronto’s COVID-19 enforcement team, which includes resources from the city, Toronto Public Health and Toronto Police Service, issued 29 tickets for those violating physical distancing bylaws and spoke to over 2,000 people about what to do while out in public spaces.

Education instead of enforcement is the better tactic to take at this point, according to Christopher Rudnicki, a partner and legal counsel at Rusonik, O’Connor, Robbins, Ross, Gorham and Angelini.

“Police officers have the discretion to just caution people, it’s a much more effective method of police power than enforcement,” he said.

At the beginning of April, the city of Toronto passed two bylaws making it illegal for those who don’t practice physical distancing, which means if you’re out in public and don’t remain at least two metres away from someone who is not living in the same household, you could face a fine of up to $1,000. A conviction in court can lead to a $5,000 fine.

The province also passed temporary laws under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, which forced the closures of non-essential business, and limits gatherings of more than five people and stops businesses from price gouging.

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 26: Mayor John Tory is out of isolation and back to work at City Hall. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Thousands of people visited city parks, and officers responded to 346 complaints and despite most of the complaints being used to educate the public, Mayor John Tory said there is no plan to limit access.

“We have not really had a discussion about closing the parks..the notion of taping off High Park or some big or small parks is an impracticality for us,” said Tory in his press conference on Monday afternoon.

Rudnicki said if everyone who received a ticket decided to just fight it, the already backlogged provincial court system might not be able to handle it.

“If all the people decide to contest their tickets, you’ve just added 100 tickets to the provincial offences system which is probably overburdened,” he said.

Toronto City officials said most of the interactions they had with the public were to provide education, and while there is no ban in parks, Rudnicki believes a simple reminder may be all that’s needed.

“I tend to think that giving people very specific instructions about how they can go out in public and are encouraged to take walks everyday, as long as they maintain physical distancing -- there shouldn’t be any problem,” said Rudnicki.

In cases where enforcement is needed and people are blatantly disobeying health recommendations, Runidick hopes people aren’t just getting handed tickets.

“If people aren’t following physical distancing recommendations that’s a tough nut to crack for policy makers. If police officers only have the hammer of enforcement, we need to think of something else,” said Rudnicki.

Instead of enforcement, Rudnicki suggests police officers be used to help medical workers, or to help the elderly who may be in need of medicine or groceries. Rudnicki added that with respect to officers, being close to other people during a pandemic may be a safety issue for themselves and greater public, too.

Christopher Rudnicki is a lawyer in Toronto

‘Prohibition seems ineffective’

Throughout the weekend, members of the enforcement team patrolled 300 parks and public places including outdoor shopping plazas, parks and playgrounds.

Canoe Landing and High Park, were amongst some of the fourteen parks which saw an increase in traffic, but the highest traffic park was Bluffers Park, where at least 800 vehicles were turned away.

Instead of hoping Torontonians follow the recommendations, Rudnicki thinks it may be time to take some control out of their hands.

“If they stagger entry into the park, or tell people to limit their time, or after it hits a total, then that could be effective, but prohibition seems ineffective,” he said.

While for some, there may be a desire to limit how many people are strolling through Toronto parks, Tory said the city has issued a directive to parks staff to remove furniture that can be easily removed, and for caution tape to be placed around things that cannot be moved.

When asked about how to police tighter spaces like Toronto sidewalks, Tory indicated that it would be difficult to hone in sidewalks.

“The policing of that, the enforcement of that would be a big challenge for us because there’s thousands of kilometres of sidewalks through the city,” he said. “I think right now, things are working OK in that regard.”