BREAKING: Government walks back widely-criticized policies on police powers and playgrounds

BREAKING: Government walks back widely-criticized policies on police powers and playgrounds

The government has changed its mind on public health measures yet again.

For the fourth time in as many weeks, the Progressive Conservative government has rolled back a major part of its response to the pandemic, this time abandoning measures that were announced just one day earlier.

On Friday, Premier Doug Ford announced a suite of public health measures that fell short of what health experts and Ontario's Science Table had called for but still raised the ire of mayors, police forces and civil libertarians. The immediate reaction to the announcement essentially pleased no one and left the government facing a chorus of angry Ontarians upset for a variety of reasons, including that the province is now facing an unprecedented crisis that had been predicted months ago by experts.

The government walked back measures on two fronts Saturday: once again allowing playgrounds to be used and somewhat curtailing extraordinary police powers that would have allowed Ontario cops and bylaw officers to stop and question citizens without a reason to do so.

In a statement, Stephen Warner, the spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, explained the shift on police powers. "We have refocused O.Reg 8/21 Enforcement of COVID-19 Measures: If a police officer or other provincial offences officer has reason to suspect that you are participating in an organized public event or social gathering, they may require you to provide information to ensure you are complying with restrictionsEvery individual who is required to provide a police officer or other provincial offences officer with information shall promptly comply." (Bolding added by Warner.) 

In the previous wording police officers would have been allowed to stop Ontarians regardless of any reason.

He continued: "As outlined in O.Reg 82/20 Rules for Areas in Stage 1, with limited exceptions, indoor social gatherings / public events are prohibited, and outdoor social gatherings / public events are limited to five (5) people – limited to members of your own household and one other person who lives alone."

It is not the first time that the government has had to reverse course almost immediately on its pandemic policies in recent weeks. The province loosened up restrictions on restaurants and patios although cases were climbing,  and reversed course less than two weeks later. At first, the premier declined to enact a stay-at-home order despite the expert advice of the Science Table. The next week he did so. Education Minister Stephen Lecce insisted in a letter that schools were safe. The next day they were shut down indefinitely.

The pushback in this instance came from a variety of sources. At least 37 of 44 police forces by one count said they would not use the extraordinary power of random police checks of Ontarians, as critics and civil liberties advocates warned about police overreach that could disproportionately impact marginalized residents and the erosion of freedoms.

The NDP, Liberals, and Greens all called for the premier to reverse course before he did so. The Canadian Centre for Liberties Association announced it would prepare a legal challenge to the measures, which it termed "unconstitutional" and a "Black Friday" for civil rights.

The freedom of the toddler class was also at stake. Parents on social media were irate that playgrounds had been shut down — some were wrapped in yellow police tape — while the scientific evidence shows the likelihood of outdoor transmission is very low and the jungle gym has not been connected to outbreak events.

Other measures announced yesterday included extending the stay-at-home order by two more weeks, prohibiting activities like golfing, tennis and camping, restricting mobility at provincial borders and capping places of worship at 10 people. The policies were enacted due to an unprecedented health crisis that has seen ICUs overrun and the imminent threat of triage situations, where some patients are denied life-saving care.

Health experts resoundingly slammed the suite of measures as insufficient, arguing that they are not targeted at what is driving COVID transmission. They shared the message that outdoor activities should be encouraged and that curbing indoor transmission — by redefining what constitutes essential work and offering additional supports for essential workers — would better address the crisis.

Despite the advice from health experts yesterday's measures from the government did not provide provincial paid sick leave, additional support for essential workers, or narrowing restrictions on what constitutes essential work. About four-in-10 outbreaks in Ontario have occurred in workplaces.

In addition to police forces balking at the powers they had been granted by the province, mayors expressed their dismay too. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, a former PC leader, said he would explore whether the City could legally defy the order. He thanked the premier when the playground order was withdrawn and urged him to explore other health measures that have been suggested.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, another former PC leader, had expressed public concern about the policing powers.

Ontario still faces an extraordinarily difficult time, according to data modelling projections released yesterday. The province will likely see cases continue to climb for the next two weeks and, if it follows the path of moderate public health measures and average daily vaccinations around 100,000, it could see daily cases over 10,000 people within weeks.

Meanwhile, the crisis is eroding the government's popularity and public trust, according to opinion polls. The latest EKOS poll, released yesterday, still shows the PCs in the lead at 35 per cent, but that marks a significant drop in support from recent surveys that showed them in the low-40s. It was their second-worst poll in the past nine months and was conducted before the latest round of public health decisions that were widely criticized. The Liberals ranked second at 30 per cent.

An Angus Reid poll from the previous week showed the premier's approval for his handling of the pandemic has plummeted from 55 per cent in the second wave to 32 per cent. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams was tied for the lowest approval in the country among provincial CMOHs, with the approval of 46 per cent of Ontarians.


David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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