Mayor unmoved by calls to open roads to pedestrians

Mayor unmoved by calls to open roads to pedestrians

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson isn't open to closing city streets to give people more room to exercise outdoors, nor is he apologizing for the hefty fines that bylaw officers handed out on the weekend to residents violating social distancing rules.

Some people have complained that some streets and sidewalks, especially in central Ottawa neighbourhoods, are too crowded to maintain the two-metre distance required by COVID-19 social distancing policies.

"People are concerned about overcrowding, which they should be," Watson said Tuesday on CBC's Ottawa Morning. "Then don't go and jog on the busiest street in the neighbourhood."

 

The mayor said other than looking at creating pods around grocery stores and pharmacies, he's not up for widening pedestrian areas or closing residential streets because he's worried it will encourage people to congregate.

He also defended the hefty fines of more than $800 that the city's bylaw officers handed out to dozens of residents over the weekend.

"We're trying to be reasonable by allowing people to walk through, or jog through, or cycle through the park so that at the end of the day they can get some exercise," Watson told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"But if people are going to continue to disobey the law, do you think we should simply just continue to turn a blind eye?"

Councillor calls for pedestrian space

Other cities including Winnipeg and Calgary have closed some neighbourhood streets to give people in those areas more room to get fresh air, or for kids to play in the roadways. The idea is not to create a destination for people from across the city, but to make space for people in the areas where they already live.

Watson and city staff have said they are not in favour of these sorts of residential street closures.

But Somerset ward Coun. Catherine McKenney, who's been arguing for more pedestrian space on Bank Street, said they aren't looking for the sidewalk to be widened for exercise or recreation, but so people can safely walk to essential services like grocery stores and pharmacies.

The councillor understands that there's a relatively low risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19 from passing someone on a sidewalk, but what about where there are 20 or 25 people on a city block?

"You're walking toward each other, they're passing from behind, and say you're a senior you've just come out of this building and you're walking three blocks to get to the pharmacy," said McKenney. "In that block, you may be in very close proximity to a dozen people. So … the risk increases."

The councillor isn't asking for Bank Street to be shut down, but believes a lane of traffic could be handed over to pedestrians, especially in areas where the sidewalk is not two metres wide. 

"We don't want people kicking around a soccer ball, for example," McKenney said. "But this is a similar scenario, when you think about proximity and numbers of people."

Francis Ferland/CBC

Mayor defends tickets, fines

Over the weekend, the city received 526 calls about residents potentially breaking the social distancing rules, which include not using city facilities like park fields and play structures, and not gathering in groups of more than five. All city facilities are closed until at least the end of June.

Bylaw officers handed out 43 tickets, which carry a hefty price tag of more than $800. In Toronto, by comparison, officers there issued 26 tickets last weekend.

Some of the Ottawa residents who were fined appear to have flouted the law in obvious ways, such as operating a barber shop or serving drinks at a pub. But others say they were either following the rules or that the rules are unclear.

For example, one man who was ticketed said he was walking his dog through the park, which is allowed as long as both pet and owner don't linger.

Watson said people should know the rules by now, and that bylaw officers do use their discretion when they come across someone who isn't following the rules.

"Bylaw officers would not simply go in and go directly to someone who's stopped you know at a fountain or something like that," Watson said. "They actually would observe what the person is doing. And we've heard cases, for instance, of an individual that is walking their dog but … they're actually throwing the stick into the water."

The mayor said anyone who wants to challenge a ticket can do so by registering an appeal online, although the case won't be heard until the provincial courts reopen.