Details still being worked out on Niagara's approach to enforcing stay-at-home order

·4 min read

The order has been delivered, and now it’s up to Niagara’s police and bylaw officers to enforce it.

The province’s new stay-at-home order came into effect just after midnight on Thursday, requiring people to remain at home unless leaving for “essential trips” to access medical services, pick up groceries, exercise outdoors or go to work.

In multiple responses to questions from Niagara This Week about what enforcement of the order will look like across Niagara, “collaboration” was the keyword as municipalities, police, the Region and public health work together to hammer out details of how the stay-at-home order will be enforced.

The province has handed down additional power to police and bylaw officers, allowing for officers to disperse gatherings over the allowable limit of five people and to order temporary closures of premises in violation of the order.

The Niagara Regional Police Service has received “clarification and direction” from the province about changes to regulations and enforcement during what is now Ontario’s second state of emergency, communications manager Stephanie Sabourin said in an emailed response.

Sabourin did not provide specifics but said “there is no one correct answer” to what enforcement will look like because circumstances vary with each incident.

“When appropriate, [officers] will educate individuals on the legislation and the compliance requirements. When and where appropriate to do so, the legislation will be enforced with fines and penalties,” Sabourin said.

“The service is working diligently to ensure our members understand their responsibilities and the limitations of their authority to enforce this order,” Sabourin said, without providing specific detail on what those responsibilities or limitations are.

Joe Couto, spokesperson for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said during a phone call Thursday, that a government memo was sent to police chiefs across the province on Wednesday giving clarity to police powers.

Police cannot stop a person exclusively to find out whether they are complying with the stay-at-home order, Couto explained.

“It’s very clear we don’t have those powers,” he said of the province’s memo. “We wouldn’t be just randomly pulling people off the street and going, ‘Why are you here?’”

According to Sabourin, police are also not permitted to stop a vehicle “for the sole purpose of determining whether a person is acting in compliance” with the order.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, staff have been redeployed from the Region’s business licensing and tobacco enforcement teams to enforce the province’s Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and the Re-Opening Ontario Act.

An educational approach to enforcement of the stay-at-home order will still be the common approach across Niagara’s municipalities, with some shifting attitudes as reviews of the order are ongoing.

In Lincoln, a security company has been retained to “assist with monitoring of a park space that contains an outdoor ice rink to disperse gatherings,” according to communications manager, Liliana Busnello.

St. Catharines has made enforcement of pandemic-related orders a priority for bylaw officers.

In Fort Erie, bylaw patrols have already increased 33 per cent since entering into the red stage, said Town enforcement manager, Paul Chudoba, in an email.

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s community engagement coordinator, Lauren Kruitbosch, said decisions have yet to be made about whether by-law enforcement efforts will be increased but noted council has appointed staff from other departments to supplement officers if needed and that “the province is expecting enforcement at this point.”

In an emailed statement to Niagara This Week, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said he believes “further measures are needed to nudge the population to stay home, break off social contacts outside of one’s household, and stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Hirji noted similar orders have been used with success elsewhere, but said success in Niagara will depend on “whether the public voluntarily adheres to the order” and the province effectively enforcing the order.

Questions submitted by Niagara This Week to the Premier’s Office about the stay-at-home order went without responses at the time of publishing.

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week