Niagara communities are joining some of their neighbours in going after businesses and individuals violating COVID-19 restrictions.
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said his city’s bylaw enforcement team cracked down on the owner of two short-term rental properties a few weeks ago after more than 10 people were crowded into homes each used as Airbnbs.
He said more than 20 fines were handed out, worth hundreds of dollars each for participants, while the property owner will be called before a justice of the peace and could face a penalty of between $10,000 and $100,000.
“It sends a message because for the two we got we know there are a lot more that are still ongoing,” Diodati said. “It’s the public who alert us. In today’s day and age, everyone has a cellphone with a camera. People take pictures of licence plates, and what goes on. They’re collecting the evidence for us.”
Diodati said a Niagara Falls bar he did not identify was recently shut down after the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, public health, the city’s bylaw enforcement team, Niagara Regional Police and firefighters showed “zero tolerance” when responding to what he described as a “blatant disregard for the rules and the protocols.”
“They lost their liquor licence, too,” he said.
Diodati said the city has handed out more than 1,400 warnings since the pandemic began, while urging residents and business owners to ensure they are in compliance with COVID-19 rules and restrictions.
St. Catharines planning and building services director Tami Kitay, who manages bylaw enforcement, said officers there “have not issued any fines” related to bylaws requiring businesses to develop and publicly post mask policies.
Niagara police have not issued many tickets related to the pandemic, either.
NRP spokeswoman Stephanie Sabourin said police since Oct. 11 have laid one charge for failing to comply with the Reopening of Ontario Act, and handed out one warning for having too many people inside an establishment.
Welland Coun. Pat Chiocchio, co-chair of Niagara Region’s public health and social services committee, said bylaw enforcement officers throughout Niagara are working together, along with police and the Ministry of Labour investigating about 40 complaints each week.
Starting Friday, he said, regional councillors will be updated weekly on the results of those investigations, including fines issued.
“They’ll be providing more information from here on, as to all the stats,” Chiocchio said. “We’ll have a better understanding of it.”
Neighbouring communities, including those designated as control-red or lockdown-grey in the province’s COVID-19 Response Framework, have also stepped up enforcement efforts. For instance, information posted in the city of Hamilton website says that city has issued 172 fines under the Emergency Measures and Civil Protection Act, 33 under the Reopening Ontario Act, and several other administrative penalties. The website also lists the names and locations of 14 businesses that have been charged.
A recent motion approved by Niagara’s regional council calls for strict enforcement of COVID-19 bylaws and public health regulations, while easing restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Although the same motion calls for fines and identities of violators to be publicly published, that has yet to happen. The Region’s legal department is looking into the matter, but Diodati said he has misgivings about identifying people and businesses that are facing charges.
“Anyone can be charged, but a conviction is very different,” he said. “I’m all about being serious and I think our bylaw and law enforcement have shown they are taking this serious by shutting down these tow vacation rentals and this bar. They threw the book at them.”
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said there could be room for improvements in local enforcement efforts, if more resources are provided with support from the provincial government. It would allow officers to visit workplaces before they become the subject of a complaint — ensuring businesses have all necessary measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Hirji said there is reactive enforcement happening as bylaw officers respond to complaints, “but there’s not a lot of proactive enforcement.”
“I think there are more opportunities to do that proactive enforcement and that’s going to take some resources and to do it proactively, we do it before we start to see problems,” he added.
Kitay agreed, saying bylaw enforcement offices are “strained for resources at the best of times, and then when you add COVID to that and all the multi-layers of jurisdiction it does pose a challenge.”
Niagara police officers, too, have been working with public health and regional and municipal by-law officers to enforce the emergency orders, but they too are facing resource limitations while dealing with an increasing call volume, Sabourin said.
Hirji said the health department is working with the Region’s business licencing office and area municipalities “to put together a more comprehensive plan to make sure there aren’t any gaps in enforcement activities going on.”
Those improvements are being made on an ongoing basis, he added.
For the most part, however, Kitay said Niagara has yet to see the same level of “deliberate defiance” that other jurisdictions have experienced.
And that’s reflected in the relatively low level of COVID-19 cases the region is seeing, compared to other communities.
“Our numbers have been fairly stable and plateauing versus all the communities around us that have elevated quickly, from yellow to orange to red to lockdown. We’ve been stable at orange and it looks like we will continue that way as long as people keep behaving,” she said.
“Obviously, you’re not going to have a 100 per cent compliance rate, but there seems to be healthy enough respect for the risks associated with this virus that we are keeping our community spread down, and hopefully it stays that way.”