Who you gonna call? When it comes to COVID-19 scofflaws, that depends

Who you gonna call? When it comes to COVID-19 scofflaws, that depends

Since public health officials began preaching physical distancing and self-isolation to combat the spread of COVID-19, Ottawans have been calling police, city councillors and news organizations to report people flouting the rules.

Sometimes it's neighbours who are refusing to stay home despite an order for travellers to self-isolate for 14 days. Sometimes it's groups of kids playing in the park. People seem confused about whom to call, and when.

On Friday evening, police were called to the Glebe after someone complained that about a dozen neighbours were having a "driveway party," even though everyone was standing in their own driveways. Officers warned them about open liquor on public property, then left.

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 store.' Do we have any policies and procedures on that, to report people?" asked Tierney. 

Unsatisfactory as it may be, the answer is: 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.

Both Ontario and Quebec have ordered all non-essential businesses to close, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford has issued an emergency order banning gatherings of five people or more, with an exception for members of the same household.

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 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 it's not illegal

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.

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 bylaw officers showed up and managed to disperse 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 bylaw 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," Dionne said.

CBC News

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."