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May. 18, 2022 | Wednesday
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Bylaw officers harassed for enforcing restrictions
NOTL visitors breaking lockdown regulations swore and insulted a town staff member for asking the kids to stay off the gazebo, which was officially closed under provincial COVID-19 safety regulations. The parents then verbally attacked a reporter for taking pictures and laughed as their children imitated slapping a photographer. (Richard Harley)

Niagara-on-the-Lake bylaw officers are getting slammed by people who are fed up with COVID-19 restrictions, town officials say.

People were swearing, yelling "and even spitting" at bylaw officers during the weekend as they tried to enforce COVID-19 safety regulations, said chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie during Monday's committee of the whole meeting.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero said it was an "unusual weekend" that saw many people frustrated and confused, largely due to COVID fatigue and a tweet Saturday by Premier Doug Ford.

On Sunday, a reporter witnessed a group of parents with their children within earshot tell a bylaw officer he was an "idiot" and to mind his own business for trying to do his job at Queen's Royal Park.

The bylaw officer had told the group of children to stay off the gazebo, which was closed off per provincial regulations.

On Saturday, Ford tweeted that the province would be reversing its decision to close municipal structures and playgrounds. But that decision wasn't finalized by the province until Tuesday. 

The bylaw officer on Sunday explained to the family that it wouldn't be long before town staff removed the closed signs, but until then they needed to keep off.

The family also berated a reporter for taking pictures of the incident in a public park.

They accused a reporter of acting illegally by taking pictures of them in the public park, claiming a "consent form" is needed. However, no consent is needed to take pictures in a public space.

The family said they believe the province's lockdown orders are "not laws." However, provincial regulations on gathering actually are enforceable laws.

In another incident, a town bylaw officer phoned Niagara Regional Police after Niagara resident Robert Munger allegedly started cutting away the closed signage at a public park.

Munger, who owns Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was not charged, but said an officer visited his store about the incident and attempted to arrest him for failing to provide his identification.

Munger said he asked the officer to leave his private property and the officer complied.

The Lake Report spoke the officer on the scene, after receiving a call about the incident.

"I get people want to play at the parks. I agree they should be allowed to play at the parks, but it doesn't entitle people to go and cut the town's property," the officer said.

Disero said Ford's tweet was not an official amendment to the regulations, so the town was forced to wait to open playgrounds.

Cluckie said parks were "very busy" during the weekend.

"While out-of-town visitors were few based on our Bell Media data and our traffic data, social gatherings in parks was actually quite high, so efforts were focused in these areas," she said.

"It was particularly concerning in Old Town. People who were social gathering would see the bylaw officers coming, split up and and run away. So, I think people have an awareness, but they're not always following the regulations, so it's good that we have people out reminding."

According to Bell Media data, about 63,000 mobile devices entered into NOTL on the weekend. About 72 per cent of those people were from Niagara Region, 12 per cent from GTA and six per cent from Hamilton.

Of those, about 23,000 devices entered Old Town, with about 75 per cent being from Niagara Region, 11 per cent from GTA and five per cent from Hamilton. About 500 devices also went to the outlet mall, of which 100 per cent from Niagara Region.

Traffic counters indicated about 5,500 vehicles entered Old Town, suggesting that vehicles were filled with multiple people.

Despite the number of visitors still coming, the town has laid just three enforcement tickets for COVID-19 related infractions.

Cluckie thanked bylaw officers and staff for handling the situations with dignity.

"They're really doing an amazing job responding and helping people to be safe. What you might not realize is just how tough a job this can be," she told councillors.

"Many people are frustrated now with the regulations and restrictions, and sometimes they direct that frustration at those folks that are trying to help and do their jobs," she said.

"I really commend them for keeping their cool and doing their job to keep the community safe, even in light of those kinds of situations."

Disero said people need to be respectful of town bylaw and police officers, despite the extremely challenging times.

Coun. Norm Arsenault also took to social media to remind residents to be patient with town staff and bylaw officers as they too adapt to "constant changes" that can be "confusing and frustrating."

"There have been some resident concerns raised regarding the closure of outdoor recreational amenities in NOTL," he said, noting the tweet from Ford "caused some excitement for young children and families within the community."

"However, the amended regulations have not yet been amended and issued, so NOTL continues to follow the current regulations as announced Friday. Reopening efforts will begin as soon as the regulations are officially changed by the provincial government as current regulations do not allow for the use of outdoor recreational amenities."

"As you can imagine, we can’t change direction based on a single tweet," Arsenault said.

Cluckie echoed those sentiments during Monday's meeting.

"Some municipalities opted to follow the tweets, but historically Niagara-on-the-Lake has been very cautious and really putting safety first. It's been our utmost priority," she said.

"So we opted instead to wait (for) the regulation and the formal announcement. As soon as that was made this morning through an update to their provinces website we sent our staff out to make that change."

Disero said the formal announcement didn't actually come until Tuesday, but a change on the province's website gave enough assurance for the town to act on Monday.

The defiance of provincial COVID-19 laws and aggression toward bylaw officers comes on the heels of two Niagara protests which saw hundreds of people gather to voice their opposition to lockdowns, with many of the speakers spreading false claims about vaccines, masks and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 being a government scheme to control people.