Ontario’s Social Distancing Laws

Social distancing is the only way that we are going to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. People are increasingly asking about what they can do outside, where they can go, and with whom they can travel. In this blog post, I look at Ontario’s law governing social distancing rules, the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.

What follows is legal information, not legal advice. If you have a legal question about social distancing, a question about a more specific scenario, or a question about criminal law in general, contact me at Chris@Sewrattan.com. Visit my website at www.sewrattan.com for more information.

When is it an offence to be outside?

Basically, it is an offence to be at any gathering of more than 5 people; for example, a house party, sport event, or parade. Under the law, it is an offence to be inside or outside in a gathering of more than 5 people that is social, religious, or an organized public event. There are two exceptions: (1) the people are members of the same household or (2) attending a funeral service that has 10 or fewer people.

You are okay if you are with a group of more than 5 people and you are not in a social or religious gathering or an organized public event. In this way, the law does not conflict with another law that allows people to work at an essential business (Regulation 82/20 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act).

The offence is located in Regulation 52/20 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.1

What can I do outside? 

Technically, under the law you are allowed to walk, run, bike, drive, etc. anywhere for any reason as long as you are with fewer than 4 other people and not in a closed part of a park.

The Ontario government has asked that everyone remain indoors unless it is necessary to go outside. If you do go outside, the government asks that you stay 2 meters away from others. The law does not demand this.

Is it true that the police can pull my car over and ticket me and my passengers for not social distancing?

Yes and no. The police can ask you and your passengers questions that might show that you are breaching the social distancing rules. But you don’t have to answer those questions.

The police can pull your car over for traffic safety reasons. Once pulled over, the police can charge you or your passenger(s) with any offence that the police see committed. This includes if you are in a social gathering of 5 or more people.

But remember there are two exceptions to the prohibition on gatherings. You can gather if you are all members of the same household or attending a funeral of 10 or fewer people. The police will only know that you do not fall into one of the exceptions if you tell them. You don’t have to say anything to the police. You have the right to silence.

But use your common sense. Do you think the police will respond warmly if they pull you over and you refuse to answer their questions? There is a difference between legal theory and reality. The best way to avoid this situation is to stay inside.

When do I have to give my name to a police officer?

You only have to provide your name, date of birth, and address to a police officer if the officer is in a position to charge you with breaching a social distancing rule. You do not have to provide your name, date of birth, or address to allow the officer to investigate whether you are breaching a social distancing rule.

The distinction is subtle but key to interacting with the police. Consider the following example. You are walking on the sidewalk. A police officer stops you and asks for your name, date of birth, and address. You ask why. The police officer explains that they want to know if you are breaching the social distancing rules. Under the law, you do not have to answer the officer’s question in this scenario.

But, again, use your common sense to navigate your police interaction. The situation may not go as smoothly as the above example. The best way to avoid the situation is to practice social distancing.

The law governing providing your name to the police is located in Regulation 114/20 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.2

Can I exercise at a park?

You can exercise at any park, public or private, if that portion of the park is neither closed nor contains one of the following:

  1. An outdoor playground, play structure or equipment
  2. A sports facility or multi-use field, including,
    • baseball diamonds,
    • soccer fields,
    • frisbee golf locations,
    • tennis, platform tennis, table tennis and pickleball courts,
    • basketball courts,
    • BMX parks, and
    • skate parks
  3. An off-leash dog area
  4. Outdoor fitness equipment
  5. An outdoor allotment gardens and community gardens.
  6. An outdoor picnic site or benches and shelters in park and recreational areas.

Remember, it is okay if the park has a baseball diamond or soccer field, just as long as the portion that you are using does not. And that portion of the park has to be open.

The law governing parks is located in Regulation 104/20 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.3

There are other laws

The blog post is about the state of Ontario’s law as of April 1, 2020. It is only about the basic rules governing people going outside. There are other laws governing going outside, such as working at a non-essential business (Regulation 82/20)4 and closing establishments (Regulation 51/20).5 The laws may change as things get worse.

Be safe

Please do not take this blog post as a justification to skirt the social distancing rules. The best way to navigate the rules is to physically distance yourself from others. Unnecessarily coming into proximity with others right now is dangerous, selfish, and irresponsible.

Footnotes
1 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/200052
2 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/200114
3 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/200104
4 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/200082
5 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/200051

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