Ford backtracks on new police COVID-19 powers amid intense backlash
By Colin Perkel
TORONTO — Furious criticism of new anti-pandemic powers that allow police in Ontario to stop any motorist or pedestrian and ask where they live and why they’re not home prompted the provincial government on Saturday to reconsider the measures.
As the number of infected people in hospital reached record levels, Premier Doug Ford tweeted that the measures, which also included shutting down all outdoor recreational facilities and playgrounds, would be clarified.
“Ontario’s enhanced restrictions were always intended to stop large gatherings where spread can happen,” Ford said. “Our regulations will be amended to allow playgrounds, but gatherings outside will still be enforced.”
Earlier, a government source speaking on background told The Canadian Press that a “clarification” of the police powers was pending final approval.
“We have heard a lot of feedback on this in the last 24 hours in terms of the scope and applicability,” said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Civil libertarians, and pundits have attacked new anti-pandemic restrictions announced Friday by Ford as misguided.
The added police powers aimed at enforcing stay-at-home orders, they said, were overkill.
The closing of outdoor spaces puzzled many public health experts, who said the measures didn’t make sense.
“Outdoor activities are vital for mental and physical health, especially with stay-at-home orders,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who sits on the province’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force, said in a tweet.
“Science is clear: Outdoor COVID transmission is extremely rare.”
The pandemic, meanwhile, continued unabated on Saturday. The number of patients in hospital due to the novel coronavirus rose above 2,000 for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, with 726 in intensive care and 501 needing a ventilator, authorities reported.
To help manage the record number of hospitalizations, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced Saturday that two federal mobile health units would remain in the province until at least the end of June. The military-style field hospitals are deployed at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and Hamilton Health Sciences.
Health officials also recorded 34 more deaths related to the virus — the highest single-day count in almost two months, when 47 people were reported as dying from coronavirus disease.
Ontario’s enhanced restrictions were always intended to stop large gatherings where spread can happen.
Our regulations will be amended to allow playgrounds but gatherings outside will still be enforced. Play outside safely. Parents keep your distance & wear masks if you can’t.
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) April 17, 2021
The province logged 4,362 new cases on Saturday, down from Friday’s record-setting number of 4,812. Globally, the pandemic has now killed more than three million people.
Politicians were among those denouncing the new police powers.
In a note to constituents, Jill Andrew, a New Democrat provincial legislator, said the measures show the Ford government is out of touch.
“Let’s be very real here: We are not going to police our way out of the pandemic,” he said. “The reality here is that this will likely impact Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.”
“I am very concerned about arbitrary stops of people by police at any time,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a tweet.
While violating restrictions can carry a $750 fine, failure to provide police with requested information can result in criminal charges, according to the province’s association of police chiefs.
Large and small police forces across the province, however, said they had no intention of exercising their new-found powers.
“I would like to reassure our citizens that our officers will not be conducting random vehicle or individual stops,” Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah said in a statement on Saturday.
Andrew Fletcher, chief of the South Simcoe Police Service, said officers would only act on complaints. Police forces from Thunder Bay to Ottawa to Toronto and Woodstock expressed similar positions.
Civil rights groups, however, took little comfort.
“Ontario is one step closer to becoming a police state,” said Joanna Baron, executive director of the Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation.
“Low income and minority communities have borne the brunt of this pandemic in terms of cases and mortality, and they are now more likely to bear the brunt of police enforcement.”
The new restrictions, including a two-week extension to the province’s stay-at-home order until May 20, were announced amid dire warnings from government scientific advisers that the pandemic was only set to worsen.
Other measures include further restrictions on outdoor gatherings and indoor religious services, while recreational facilities such as sports fields and playgrounds are now closed. Ontario intends to shut its borders with Quebec and Manitoba to non-essential travel effective Monday.
Ford said Friday the province was “on its heels” and the measures were urgently needed to bring the province’s raging COVID-19 situation under control.
But experts said Ford had missed the mark on key drivers of the pandemic, including a lack of paid sick leave for essential workers and dearth of evidence playgrounds have been a transmission source.
“Doug Ford’s handling of this pandemic has been an abject failure and absolute disaster,” said Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, a father of two young children, welcomed the change of heart on playgrounds, saying “common sense wins.”
“Now let’s have a discussion on other outdoor amenities as well,” Brown said.