Ottawa police, bylaw and public health say broader police powers could set COVID-19 fight back

OTTAWA — Ottawa police, bylaw and public health officials say newly announced policing measures in Ontario, aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, could actually make things worse.

On Friday, the Ontario government announced broad new powers to enable police to enforce the provincial stay-at-home order, including the authority to stop anyone outdoors and ask them for their address and why they’re outside.

The new measures were met with swift and immediate backlash from people who feared the powers would harm people who are already most at risk, especially racialized community members and the homeless.

Police forces around the province—including the Ottawa Police Service—quickly announced they would not be randomly or arbitrarily stopping citizens and questioning them. Within 24 hours, the province softened the regulation to say that police would only stop anyone suspected of taking part in a prohibited gathering or social event.

A joint statement issued Monday by the Ottawa Police Service, Ottawa Bylaw and Regulatory Services and Ottawa Public Health said they all met over the weekend and concluded that any additional enforcement measures would do more harm than good and may actually set the city back in its efforts to combat the latest wave of COVID-19.

“At this time, the current public health risk assessment shows that different enforcement or action by police authorities could create challenges with compliance to public health orders and may actually set COVID-19 control measures back,” the joint letter said. “Current medical literature and professional study reinforces the opinion that homeless populations and other disadvantaged communities, in particular, require support to be able to increase protection from COVID-19.”

The note said that egregious violations of public health orders are covered by existing public health measures, which will continue to be used. The three local authorities said they would concentrate on dealing with areas that have the greatest risk of transmission, such as indoors, where people are not wearing masks and where distances cannot be kept between people who live in different households, though health officials did not that transmission is possible outdoors as well.

“Community cooperation and collaboration is recognized as the best way to achieve public health measures like stay-at-home orders,” the note said. “Adherence to public health measures is anticipated to be largely achieved with a focus on encouragement, sharing information and awareness raising.” 

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