(Sam Mircovich/Illustration/Reuters - image credit)
Matthew Steeves and his wife haven't had a moment alone in months, but when they stole away for a drive on Wednesday and stopped to play Pokémon GO, their brief getaway ended with a fine of $880.
The couple, who live in the town of Kingsville, Ont., south of Windsor, had pulled into an empty church parking lot to capture some digital monsters.
But an Ontario Provincial Police cruiser drove up behind them and the officer asked what they were doing, Steeves said. The officer then told them their trip wasn't essential and handed the pair a fine for violating lockdown restrictions.
"I was in shock and my mind was blown. I was very angry. I couldn't believe I was being given a $750 ticket for sitting in my van," Steeves said. "I don't understand how being inside your vehicle is contributing to the spread of COVID."
The ticket adds up to $880 when tax is included.
Essex County OPP Const. Amanda Allen confirmed that a ticket was handed out on Wednesday for failing to comply with the province's stay-at-home order restricting non-essential outings.
"We continue to urge everyone to voluntarily comply with the rules and recommendations from health officials," she said in an email.
Steeves said his family has been closely following COVID-19 regulations, including refraining from visiting family or friends for months. They didn't realize that going for a drive could land them a fine.
He and his wife picked up the mobile game Pokémon GO, along with his two teenaged kids, around Christmas. The game allows players to walk or drive around in search of digital monsters that appear when someone holds up their smartphone.
'We're all going a bit stir crazy'
The family started to play together after dinner as a way to bond and blow off steam after long days in close quarters during the pandemic.
"This lockdown has been going on for a long time, and we're all going a bit stir crazy. We've been looking at the same walls for a year now," Steeves said.
"So any chance we can get to get outside, if we can do it in a safe way, I think that would be beneficial to everybody."
Typically the four family members head out in their minivan together.
They don't go and visit anyone, and everyone inside the vehicle is a member of the same household, Steeves said, adding they've never run into any issues before.
On Wednesday it was just husband and wife, a rare occasion with kids attending school online.
Steeves said the OPP officer told them he had pulled into the parking lot to fill out some paperwork, then stopped to ask why they were there.
The Kingsville man said he explained the app to the officer and that the couple had left their home for a mental health break.
But according to Steeves, the officer said their trip wasn't essential and told him that if the family was involved in an accident, they could expose others to the risk of COVID-19, noting that if they needed to get outside, they could simply go for a walk.
"I agree it is part of the rules that there is a stay-at home-order, but at the same time, people's mental health has to be taken into account as well," he said.
A photo Steeves shared with CBC News shows a signed ticket for a total of $880. It lists failure to comply with the Reopening Ontario Act as the reason for the fine.
The provincial government declared an emergency on Jan. 12 amid rising COVID-19 cases.
Under the stay-at-home order, people in Ontario are only permitted to go out for things such as food, medication, work or exercise.
The OPP issued a statement three days after the emergency was declared, saying officers would not be arbitrarily stopping people or vehicles to check for compliance, although they can ask people to identify themselves if they have "reasonable grounds" to believe someone is violating the act.
The medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex acknowledged the need to maintain mental health when asked during a media update on Thursday whether leaving your home to go for a drive would be permitted under the order.
Dr. Wajid Ahmed pointed to a walk outside as one way to get some fresh air and a change of scenery, but he stopped short of saying residents should be barred from getting behind the wheel for a break.
"I personally don't necessarily see that as an activity that is not allowed. I think people can do that as long as ... they're not doing this to go and meet someone or engage in any non-essential activity," he said.
"As long as the people involved are all part of the same household, "I don't think there should be any reasons for concerns," he added.
But Ahmed said he couldn't answer whether or not someone should be fined for going for a drive, saying that's a decision left up to police.
Fine would buy 'a lot of groceries'
Steeves said he and his wife saw more than a dozen cars parked at the Leamington Marina on Wednesday night.
"Everybody was taking in the gorgeous sunset there last night, but I didn't see police there ticketing anybody else. I guess we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He said he plans to dispute the ticket, noting $880 is a significant amount.
"That's a lot of groceries for the kids or clothes for the kids. I'm definitely worried that I'm going to have to pay it, and it's going to have financial hardship on my family."
He also pointed out that in order to process the ticket, he'll have to drive to the courthouse in Windsor, a roughly 40-kilometre trip that happens to be permitted under the order.
"That's just a little bit of irony. I'm not supposed to be going for a drive, but now they're forcing me to."