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‘Liquor under the disguise of…coffee’: COVID-19 pandemic stumped bylaw officers in ways they couldn’t expect

Elisabetta Bianchini
·5-min read
Social distancing circles are seen as people visit Domino Park in Brooklyn as New York City experiences warm temperatures on March 12, 2021. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/Afp/AFP via Getty Images)

While the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on for the past year, on a local level, the role of bylaw enforcement has shifted and become more critical as restrictions and lockdowns came into effect.

JP Maurice, manager of bylaw enforcement for the City of Brampton, Ont., told Yahoo Canada the most challenging aspect of bylaw enforcement has been understanding the Ontario government's legislation.

"I think initially, it was new to all of us and having to understand the legislation because for our officers, it was a role and a responsibility that we were not accustomed to do, it's not our core function," Maurice explained. "We had to read the regulations to understand them, and then pass it on to our staff for them to then engage in the enforcement."

"So that was a challenge right through the pandemic because there [were] constant changes... I was getting calls, I would say probably towards November, December, a lot of calls from businesses, ‘am I allowed to open if I do A and B and C.’ And again, every single person, every single business that [is] trying to open, it made it very challenging for us because you want to be consistent and fair with everybody."

Maurice added that the frequency of the changes was also challenging to keep up with.

"The public is confused. Our officers have to be up to date because they are the frontline, they are the people that are being questioned,...so that whole area of interpretation, [understanding] the law was very, very challenging for us and continues, at times," he said.

What have been the most common complaints to bylaw enforcement?

Maurice confirmed that the most common complaints Brampton's bylaw enforcement receive are around social gatherings and private residences. He also identified a numbers of complaints have been around businesses illegally operating and people not wearing masks properly, or not wearing them at all.

"Proactive inspections" are usually how the mask rules are enforced, including officers walking into businesses to ensure they are complying with bylaws and fining employees not wearing a mask or not wearing a mask properly.

But Maurice also revealed some business have gone to "great lengths" to hide their operations, for example, personal care services.

"They are going to great lengths to hide their operation, covering windows and ensuring that clients are coming in through the back door," he said. "We've seen clients running out through the back door, knowing that enforcement is outside knocking on the door wanting to speak to the business owner."

"We've seen liquor establishments, for example, who have chosen to open and serving liquor under the disguise of a cup of coffee."

BRAMPTON, March 15, 2020 -- A medical worker wearing protective gear walks past a direction sign of a COVID-19 assessment center at Peel Memorial Center for Integrated Health and Wellness in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, on March 15, 2020. Canada's Ontario provincial government reported 39 new cases of COVID-19 Sunday morning, increasing the provincial total to 142. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)
BRAMPTON, March 15, 2020 -- A medical worker wearing protective gear walks past a direction sign of a COVID-19 assessment center at Peel Memorial Center for Integrated Health and Wellness in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, on March 15, 2020. Canada's Ontario provincial government reported 39 new cases of COVID-19 Sunday morning, increasing the provincial total to 142. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

Bylaw officers not always trained in force

Despite some individuals and businesses not following the rules, Maurice stressed that the "vast majority" of Brampton residents are being compliant but there are always concerns around people being aggressive to bylaw enforcement officers.

"You’ve got to remember that our officers are not equipped with any sort of use of force equipment, we're not the police, we enforce the bylaw and we're always trying to get compliance from the public," he said. "So when you're faced with individuals who are aggressive or there's some sort of confrontation, we take some great steps to avoid that conflict and perhaps deflect it or step back, call our law enforcement colleagues."

"We're not walking away from it, we're simply taking a pause to ensure the safety of our officers because that's our number one priority and then to bring the experts, those that have the training and the ability to deal with aggressive individuals."

Maurice identified that people are frustrated and he stressed that initially a lot of education around the rules was being done by the city's bylaw department. He revealed that the number of charges laid has increased in about the last four or five months because "if someone hasn't heard about COVID-19 I don't know where they've been living."

"Everybody's aware of it, everybody understands that masks are required, physical distancing, staying at home, all this has been driven so much in people's mind and head that we're at the stage that one way to deal with people who deliberately choose to ignore is by way of enforcement and laying charges," he said.

For anyone who still wants to deliberately ignore the rules and advice from health experts, Maurice said it is "selfish."

"This pandemic is affecting everyone...and by ignoring and defying the provincial regulations and our bylaws, all they're doing is delaying the reopening of the economy and increasing the risk to the public at large," he said.

"So laying charges is certainly one approach to gain compliance but ultimately people must do their part, they need to follow and comply with the advice of our public health official, and that's the only way we can get back to some sort of normalcy and bring back the economy, the way it was."