'It is time to get much tougher:' Dedicated team of officers to respond to reports of illegal gatherings
Large crowds are seen at Trinity Bellwoods Park in this file photo. (Beatrice Vaisman)
Chris Fox, CP24.com
Published Monday, September 21, 2020 9:57AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 21, 2020 5:05PM EDT
Toronto police have assigned a dedicated team of officers to respond to calls about illegal social gatherings and will now be focused in on enforcement rather than education.
Last week, the Ford government reduced the maximum size of allowable social gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors while simultaneously introducing steep fines of up to $10,000 for anyone found to be hosting an illegal gathering and $750 for anyone attending one.
The new stricter limits, which exempt “staffed businesses” like bars and restaurants, were put into place in response to a steep increase in COVID-19 infections and amid increasing calls for some public health restrictions used earlier in the pandemic to be revived.
At a briefing on Monday afternoon, Interim Police Chief James Ramer said that Toronto police had been responding to COVID-19-related calls on an as required basis across all divisions but will now be assigning a dedicated team of officers to do so in coordination with municipal bylaw officers and Toronto Public Health staff.
The purpose of the change, he said, is to provide a more “consistent approach” that prioritizes enforcement in light of the new stricter rules and penalties.
That means that officers will be much less likely to hand out warnings when they are called in to break up a large house party or other gathering.
“The focus now will be more on enforcement rather than on education and cautioning,” Ramer said. “That had been working, I would say quite successfully, up until recent days but clearly this is a public safety issue and we are going to need to do things differently.”
Public health officials have repeatedly identified large social gatherings as one of the driving factors behind the resurgence in COVID-19 infections.
That said the previous limits of 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors permitted under Stage 3 of the province’s reopening made cracking down on large gatherings difficult.
Earlier this month, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown even lamented the fact that bylaw enforcement officers in his city weren’t able to shut down a backyard party with 89 people in attendance.
Ramer said that Toronto police have received 20 calls for illegal social gatherings since the new rules were put into place on Friday but have not issued any citations so far, as most of the gatherings were broken up by the time officers arrived.
He said that going forward police won’t necessarily be assigning additional resources to COVID-19 related calls but will be “prioritizing” those calls where possible.
The city, meanwhile, will be convening regular meetings with its enforcement partners, including police, and will also be streamlining its intake and dispatch process for complaints related to illegal social gatherings.
“It is time to get much tougher and to bring the hammer down as it were when it comes to enforcement,” Mayor John Tory said during Monday’s briefing, noting that he expects there to be a significant increase in complaints in the coming days and weeks. “There is a time, as there has been, for education and there is a time, as there has been, for warnings but then there is a time to enforce the law and to indicate clearly to those who won’t comply that there are. I believe most people
Toronto reported 175 infections on Monday
There was an additional 175 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Toronto on Monday, which is the highest number in any 24-hour period since May.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases in the city now stands at 114 after dipping as low as 15.9 earlier this summer.
During Monday’s briefing, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that public health officials knew cases would increase with the gradual reopening of the economy but not “to this extent.”
She said that while social gatherings have “figured prominently” in the rise of cases, the resurgence of the virus is more generally explained by people making “I’ll be fine or who could it hurt decisions.”
“Life has changed and all of us have to act like it but I fear that on some level too many of us are unwilling to make the changes we need to make to keep everyone safe and limit the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “Of all the things I worry about at 3 a.m. that is what worries me most. I am afraid it explains why too many people are doing things that are making the spread of COVID-19 worse.”