Some city parks could close early this weekend

·3 min read
Empty bottles and litter left at Vincent Massey Park on the weekend had Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson calling for early park closures across the city. Instead, staff will focus on closing a few problem parks by 9 p.m. (Ian Black/CBC - image credit)
Empty bottles and litter left at Vincent Massey Park on the weekend had Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson calling for early park closures across the city. Instead, staff will focus on closing a few problem parks by 9 p.m. (Ian Black/CBC - image credit)

The City of Ottawa is stopping short of Mayor Jim Watson's idea for a blanket park curfew of 8 p.m., opting instead to close only a handful of large parks at 9 p.m. in an attempt to curb illegal gatherings — and only if the area councillor agrees to it.

Starting this weekend, anywhere from six to a dozen parks could be shut down at 9 p..m. — two hours earlier than city parks are supposed to close.

City staff haven't identified which parks could close early, although Watson has singled out Vincent Massey and Mooney's Bay parks as the scenes of partying, which is not only illegal during the stay-at-home order, but is particularly concerning considering the record number of new COVID-19 cases that Ottawa is currently experiencing.

The city will advise the public and put up signs in the parks ahead of any closures, officials promised.

"We found a reasonable approach in terms of dealing with problematic areas, yet not dropping the hammer and restricting people from using our parks," city manager Steve Kanellakos told reporters Wednesday.

"I will remind people that a year ago all parks were shut down, and the situation wasn't as severe as it was now," he said. "[Now], maybe a couple of parks will have two hours less. I don't think that's unreasonable after what we saw last weekend."

On Tuesday, the mayor told CBC's Ottawa Morning that the city received more than 420 calls over the weekend about illegal gatherings in parks, Airbnb rentals and churches. Watson said his "blood did boil" when he saw photos of empty beer bottles littering Vincent Massey Park, which is run by the National Capital Commission (NCC).

Watson had asked city staff to look at closing all city parks by 8 p.m., but a number of councillors balked at the idea, arguing it would limit access to green space for apartment and condo dwellers, as well as the city's homeless, while also potentially driving illicit gatherings indoors.

City eyeing problem parks

In a CBC email survey of council members Wednesday, most said late-night gatherings in parks aren't a major problem in their wards, and that closing parks earlier should be a last resort. In fact, many indicated they're more concerned with large gatherings in parks and other public spaces during the daytime.

Nevertheless, the city's senior management is now eyeing parks where there have been complaints of late-night rowdiness, and will deploy "park ambassadors" to remind people about the earlier closure. People will still be allowed to walk, cycle or otherwise move through the affected parks after 9 p.m., but not hang out there.

The earlier closure will allow bylaw officers to intervene before things get out of hand, according to Anthony DiMonte, the city's general manager of emergency and protective services.

"We're not arriving at 11 o'clock when it's dark, when the crowds are there, when the rowdiness has begun," he said. "When we get a complaint and it's just after 9:00 and we're arriving, we're able to intervene in a different environment."

Watson told reporters Wednesday that he supports this approach, which he called "a very good compromise."

He encouraged residents of Ottawa to keep using their neighbourhood parks for exercise, reminding them to keep within their household groups, as per the province's rules.