Coronavirus 12: On the arbitrary nature of local enforcement of provincial rules

It is spring once again, and our discontented winter slowly winds it way to a glorious “first dose summer” and, hopefully, a “second dose fall” that brings us ever closer to something like normal here in Canada. Yet for now we are still locked down in Ontario as the measures the current provincial government put in place in mid-April (and which I discussed in my last post) now extend through at least June 2. So with case rates dropping if only stubbornly and vaccination rates rapidly growing, we face a paradox here. The incidence of covid in Ontario remains wildly uneven, with a few regions in and around Toronto producing the vast majority of cases, linked to workplace outbreaks and the particular living and working conditions faced by the working class and racialized poor in Canada’s largest urban center. Yet the provincial government’s response has been a uniform across-the-board stay-at-home order, in part because people in Toronto with money don’t stay in Toronto, especially in the spring and summer, but also because the current government is bad at its job and is out of ideas. If you don’t know anything about Ontario, know this: it’s big. Really big. Like twice as big as Spain, over 1 million square km (400,00 square miles). The population is centered in the Greater Toronto Area and “Golden Horseshoe” region that extends to Niagara Falls but there are other sizable urban centers (Ottawa, London, Windsor, Sudbury, Kingston, Thunder Bay) and the north of Ontario is vast and home to numerous First Nations communities. There is no easy one-size-fits-all way to manage covid across a territory and population distributed in this way … and yet here we are.

Honestly, I would like to stop writing blog posts about coronavirus, and perhaps soon I will, but the virus, government attempts to contain and manage it, and the way it has upended so many aspects of daily life continue to be front and center. And the approach taken in Ontario has ensured that any movement toward ‘normal’ is glacial, two steps forward and one back (sometimes three). I don’t mean in any way to suggest that the kind of measures taken — limiting social gatherings and closing most public facilities; restricting indoor dining, most shopping, and other high-risk indoor activities; temporary school closures; requiring masks in businesses and where social distancing cannot be maintained — are somehow wrong. They work to slow the spread of coronavirus, and in general social distancing, use of masks, and consistent hand washing are all highly effective and time-tested means of limiting the spread of communicable disease. The rules themselves as approved by the provincial government are in most instances very clear. So clear in fact that one might wonder how those crafted with what appears to be an almost pedantic concern for precision and technicality can rest alongside the vagaries about what is permissible for outdoor gatherings and workplaces with outbreaks. For example, you can sit with a friend on a park bench if you can maintain proper social distance, but not at a picnic table, which is considered an outdoor amenity and thus closed. If the picnic table is at an Amazon warehouse in Scarborough, then that’s a different story altogether I suppose.

So the problem lies partly in the determination of where to impose precision and where to leave things blurry, and then in the execution and enforcement, which can appear arbitrary and even nonsensical. Yet this is not simply an appearance, as the localized enforcement of provincial rules is indeed sometimes arbitrary and nonsensical, and bringing the abstractions of public health interventions articulated by politicians to ground in the concrete spaces where they are supposed to work does not always go how one might expect. I experienced this last weekend in Lakeshore, a suburban town just east of Windsor. On a lovely warm weekend afternoon, my family and I ventured to Lakeshore’s Lakeview Park West Beach, a small sandy and well-kept beach on the south shore of Lake St. Clair, with a marina and a playground and, most importantly, an excellent ice cream stand. All indications from online research suggested the beach was open. This would be not only a welcome change from our last trip there in summer 2020, when we sadly discovered the beach was in fact closed, but also a well-earned departure from the scenic but worn view of our backyard and the playground down the street.

When we arrived in the early afternoon, two municipal services trucks and a few city parks employees stood outside the entrance to the covered seating area and snack stand near the beach. The several picnic tables under the covered area were surrounded by temporary orange plastic fencing that basically did nothing but create a trip hazard, as it lay on the ground and stretched around the bottom of the tables. To the left of the covered seating is a large grassy area with a few trees and in their shade more picnic tables, access to which was unimpeded with no signs saying not to use them or to maintain social distancing while seated at them. This is, or at least should be, common knowledge by this point, but again, the enactment and policing of social distancing regulations in outdoor public spaces is less clear cut than the written rules might otherwise suggest. Beyond the grassy area is the beach, maybe 150 meters wide from the channelized mouth of Belle River on the east to private property on the west and 40 meters from the grass to the water. The river can be crossed by a small foot bridge and on the other side is a large playground, several picnic areas with tables in the shade, a walking path around the edge of the water, and a sailing club and restaurant. It is a busy and well-maintained park, and the city even comes and routinely rakes the beach to clean up the voluminous amount of feces the geese leave behind.

As we entered the covered structure, I overheard the few city workers standing by their trucks talking to a woman who was on her way out and was telling the parks crew that she had taken pictures and was leaving because she didn’t want to participate in anything illegal. The workers responded that someone higher up the municipal services food chain was on their way to check out the situation. None of this boded well for a day at the beach, but we continued, got our snacks, and ate them while sitting on one of the half-cordoned off picnic tables because there seemed to be nothing stopping anyone from sitting on them (really, the orange fencing was just lying on the ground around the entire perimeter of the tables, of which there are maybe a dozen in the shade). The beach was partially blocked off by 6-foot-tall yellow metal fencing, though several pieces (almost a third of the total barrier) lay neatly piled on the ground and five or six families sat on the beach itself, all keeping their distance from one another, and a couple of people had waded out into the water up to their knees. No visible signs indicated the beach was closed or that the removal of the fencing during the middle of the day was out of the ordinary. But the beach was, in fact, closed and not to be used by the public, as we discovered.

What is one to do in these situations? It is easy enough to say, well, the beach is surely closed, even if someone has temporarily taken down the barrier, so don’t go out there. But the beach is large enough that social distancing is as easy to maintain there as it is 30 feet further back in the park’s grassy lawn, which remains fully open. It’s not a workplace issue because the park itself is open, as is the snack stand where people wait in line and do not really pay as close attention to social distancing as they should, so it’s not adding further risk or danger to parks employees to have the beach also open. And social media posts from late April and early May, still under lockdown, indicated that the beach was open, with no barrier at all. So perhaps it was closed for some other reason on this day, but there were no signs saying it was for any other public health or safety reason. In this context, with a toddler dying to dig in the sand, numerous others already on the beach, science clearly saying that outside transmission of covid is almost nonexistent when social distancing is maintained, and common sense saying it’s as risky here sitting on a blanket on the sand as it is 40 feet away sitting on the grass with the same people around you, we determined to get in some beach time.

By this point, however, the parks supervisor had arrived and with him three police officers. They politely informed everyone that the beach was closed for public health reasons and that we had about 10 minutes before it was time to go as the park workers were going to put the yellow fencing back in place. Everyone on the beach, about three dozen people in total, packed up their stuff and trudged back to the grass. Except for one family, and it soon became clear that they had likely been the ones to remove the fencing and the “Beach Closed” signs, which they had tucked away next to a small building at the far edge of the park. They had brought with them a megaphone and one of the teens with them halfheartedly sang a few bars of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” before giving up as the police officers approached them. Repositioned in the park lawn next to a sandy pit so the toddler could play with his trucks, we watched as the family conversed calmly with the police and then left and moved back toward the snack stand. The park employees quickly erected the fence barrier once more, and placed the closure signs back in front. I went to get more snacks (as one does) and overheard the Civil Disobedience Family discussing their adventure by the ice cream queue, with the matriarch complaining that someone must have called the cops on them and that it’s sad that people are such snitches, while the Megaphone Teen noted that this was all dumb.

I was torn in the moment. Yes it is dumb, I thought, as surely the beach and picnic tables are closed because the provincial rules define them as park amenities, and those are off limits during the current lockdown. On the other hand, does one stand and argue with the local police over the meaning of “amenity” and outdoor covid transmission rates? They have a limit to their interest in dealing with cranks and is it worth an $800 or so fine to make a stand on the Lakeview Park West Beach? But I also thought, well, Civil Disobedience Family, you are dumb too. You tried (poorly) to hide the ‘beach closed’ signs and removed several sections of fencing barrier in broad daylight on a busy weekend afternoon when park employees were around. And you brought a megaphone. So “snitches” are not the problem, not really. You left when the cops came, but avoided a ticket, as you probably should have gotten one if the rules were enforced to the letter. It is exceedingly difficult to hitch one’s wagon to this star, or to feel much solidarity beyond a basic and passing “yeah the beach would be nice today and these rules are kind of dumb” camaraderie with folks like this. Every weekend for the last several months, a few dozen anti-lockdown protestors have had a rally at the downtown riverfront, and then, often but not always, marched up Ouellette Avenue through downtown Windsor to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit building to register their distaste for the lockdown, but also for masks, vaccines, politicians (especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), the new world order, and a host of other boogeymen that plague those who inhabit the conspiratorial fringes of political opinion.

The political ground on which one could make useful arguments about how to safely use public space and socially manage the risk of covid has been almost entirely ceded to a bifurcated debate that pits on one hand a watered-down version of apolitical “science” and desire for prolonging lockdowns until cases are — what, zero? — and on the other hand arguments for a rapid and complete reopening and let the chips fall where they may. Orbiting this and occasionally (too often) dipping in are the conspiracy and faux-science types linking covid into already existing theories about Bill Gates, globalist efforts at depopulation and social control, the evils of vaccines, and I don’t know, probably lizard people and sex demons too. There are, you will not be surprised to hear, no small number of Donald Trump and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags at the regular Windsor anti-lockdown rallies. I have driven past these gatherings and read the news coverage in the local media, so I can tell these are generally not the kind of spaces where you might have a reasonable, scientifically-informed, socially-aware conversation about the complexity of covid and appropriate restrictions for public health. These are folks who watch eight straight hours of YouTube videos and emerge certain that masks will kill you (they won’t), that covid is a hoax (it’s not), and that vaccines are full of microchips (this is impossible) or will change your DNA (also not possible with vaccine technology). If you’re really serious about both managing covid as a known health risk and safely but fully reopening businesses and social life, you simply cannot throw your lot in with these people. Is the fence-busting Civil Disobedience Family heading 20 minutes down the road every weekend to join in the Windsor anti-lockdown rally? I have no idea. What I do know is that the local police have largely let them meet, rally, and march and thereby violate existing stay-at-home orders dating back to last summer with, relatively speaking, few tickets. There is a fundamental right to protest, but again, the rules are enforced unevenly and thus how seriously are they to be taken? We can’t sit on the beach 10 meters from the next family over but I could organize a 100-person rally to protest lockdowns and masks, so long as we all stand six feet apart and wear our masks (surprise! they don’t always wear masks at the anti-mask rally). Got it.

Now, after the beach was re-closed, we sat in the grass for a while, dug some holes in the sand, ate our ice cream, and then suddenly found ourselves neighbors to three families complete with five small children who crowded into the sand pit as my toddler looked on. We decided it was time to stretch our legs anyway, so we packed up the stroller and crossed the footbridge to the other side of the canal. Here we discovered more inconsistency in the interpretation and enforcement of the current covid restrictions. First of all, the park was full of people all using the picnic tables scattered around, many with small grills and folding chairs and coolers, so they were in it for the whole day. But they weren’t crowded together, as every group was quite far from the others so social distancing was very much maintained, and again, this is all outside. Some were, like our sand pit friends, probably there with multiple households but I can’t tell for sure, and it’s not my job to go around and police people’s adherence to rules that are precisely vague and vaguely precise. Many people live in large, multi-generational households, and I’m certainly not going to anoint myself a covid restriction vigilante in a park full of people, a majority of whom were not White and just there enjoying a warm sunny afternoon with family. The odd thing, however, is that the large playground structure was closed off, but the several sets of swings were not, and they were full of kids. Perhaps the playground was under repair, but nothing indicated such, it was simply fenced off. So if you’re keeping score, that’s one beach, one playground, and some picnic tables fenced off, with other picnic tables, the non-beach part of the park, and the other parts of the playground open and full of people. And the police left, they didn’t hang around to enforce any other covid rules that might merit a ticket and fine after kicking us all off the beach, and they apparently didn’t even ticket the people who removed the fencing and signs in the first place. Perhaps the city workers had to call the police when they encountered the removed barrier but if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound I would think.

So why enforce some of the restrictions and not others? I mean, I personally didn’t want a big fine for eating chicken fingers on the beach, but a haphazard approach to the restrictions just deepens the impression that they are arbitrary and unenforceable, and that the repercussions for not adhering strictly to them are minimal at worst. At some point, it just becomes public health theater, dependent largely on our own individual self-governance and willingness to stick to the rules either out of fear of being randomly selected to pay a fine or some sense of social duty to flatten the curve or simply because it’s the path of least resistance. Luckily we are perhaps on to the final act of the show, as the provincial government just yesterday unveiled a reopening plan tied to vaccination rates, though some parts of it are at odds with what the province’s science advisors recommended (explained here, starting at 13:25). The science advisors are not the government though, and these are political as well as scientific and health decisions for which the elected government is ultimately responsible. And they absolutely should be held responsible, not just for the belated success of the vaccination effort and what appears to be a mostly solid reopening plan, but also for ignoring massive workplace outbreaks, whining incessantly about federal officials and borders and immigrants and vaccine supply, sharing cheesecake recipe videos on social media as covid tore through nursing homes, lying about Caribbean vacations while so many lost Christmas with family, sitting on millions in earmarked funding for fighting covid while refusing to consider paid sick days as a public health measure, and for putting in place nonsensical and unenforceable rules about picnic tables and playgrounds.