Police, Ottawa city councillors and news organizations have all been fielding complaints about people not complying with the instructions from public health officials on reducing the transmission of COVID-19.
Complaints from neighbours telling on neighbours who aren’t self-isolating, or groups of kids hanging out at a local park, not following social distancing — now called physical distancing — practices have been pouring in.
And people want to know where they can report those rule-breakers.
On Friday evening, for example, police were called to the Glebe after someone complained that about a dozen neighbours were having a “driveway party”, although they were standing two metres apart and in different driveways. Officers told people not to stand on the sidewalk while drinking, and then left.
Ottawa Coun. Tim Tierney told his city council colleagues during Wednesday’s virtual council meeting: “I’ve had some people come to me, saying, ‘Look, my neighbours — I don’t want to be a rat — but they just got back from a trip, I see them going out to a grocery story.’
“Do we have any policies and procedures on that, to report people?” asked Tierney.
The unsatisfactory answer: it depends.
Quarantine Act, state of emergency now in effect
There’s a difference between what public health officials are asking of society, and the hard-and-fast rules about what people are allowed to do. And those details are changing on an almost daily basis.
Tierney asked his question of city officials the day before the federal government enacted the Quarantine Act, which makes it an offence for most people not to self-isolate for 14 days when returning from travel outside Canada.
Last week, the province declared a state of emergency that prohibits, among other things, a whole slew of businesses from being open, and gatherings of more than 50 people.
The provinces have opened up non-compliance hotlines or websites for the public to report people who are not following social distancing or isolation rules. 1:56
The official enactments allow law-enforcement officers to charge people breaking these specific rules if necessary. Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne, the media spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police, says officers would, for example, absolutely respond to a request from a quarantine officer “to apprehend a person who failed to comply” with the rules.
But charging people is the last, not the first, line of defence for enforcement officers.
“It is not about, go and find people because they haven’t complied,” Dionne told CBC.
The OPP’s primary goal, she said, is to help educate people on how to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
“Once we’ve been able to determine that that piece of education has been done and there is a repetition of failing to comply, then definitely issuing fines … at the discretion of that investigation of the officer.”
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly says he’s taking his cue, “philosophically and practically”, from Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches and her team.
“For them, enforcement is not the priority,” Sloly told CBC’s Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan Friday. “Education of the public, engagement of those who still don’t recognize the risk, who don’t understand how to protect themselves and therefore protect the broader community, is the first and biggest priority and will remain so until we see a change from Dr. Etches.”
Officers following up, even if not illegal activities
Some of the complaints that people are filing — and authorities say they are following up on them — aren’t illegal or sometimes based on misunderstanding.
If you’re caught disobeying the physical distancing rule you can now be charged, under the Quarantine Act. We hear from the Chief of the Ottawa Police Service about how their force is handling coronavirus law-breakers and policing in the age of COVID-19. 10:09
For example, Ottawa police have received calls about restaurants being open illegally, when in fact they are open only for take-out, which is allowed.
Early this week, the city received complaints about groups of young people in local parks, which is against the recommendation for physical distancing. Hanging around in a gang of 10 friends isn’t illegal, though.
Still, the city’s by-law officers showed up and managed to dispatch them.
Now that the City of Ottawa has declared its own state of emergency and closed many public amenities, including playgrounds and dog parks, it is unclear what additional charges or fines its own by-law officers may be able to lay.
The city was not able to respond to CBC’s request from late Wednesday for more information.
Neighbours shouldn’t use police to settle disputes
Authorities say they understand people’s impulse to report activity that looks as if it could be endangering public health.
“I can certainly believe that there’d be a lot of frustration,” said Dionne.
She says most people are complying with orders — official or otherwise — to stay home, and to stay two metres away from others when they have to go out. These folks then find it difficult to hear that “police can’t do anything” about people who aren’t complying.
There isn’t an official COVID-19 snitch line in Ottawa, but officials say they do want to hear serious concerns about public health risks. In Ottawa, residents can call 3-1-1, and those outside the city can call the OPP’s non-emergency line.
Still, the police aren’t there to mediate disputes among neighbours.
“Do not use or abuse the police to settle issues that shouldn’t be dealt with through the police,” said Sloly. ” Do not frustrate the efforts of Ottawa public health by being petty or uninformed. There’s no excuse for anybody to not be informed.”