Warm temperatures and the ban on gatherings in yards have sent people to public parks in droves — and that has led to safety concerns.
The city has plans to redistribute employees to act as community bylaw ambassadors in city parks after hundreds of staff were left without work due to the closure of recreation centres under the current COVID-19 guidelines.
Last spring, 40 full-time staff were used for the ambassador program, but the city isn’t sure how many they’ll put to the task this year. Ambassadors are instructed to educate people on social distancing and appropriately sized gatherings and can call in municipal bylaw enforcement officers to hand out tickets, which were set at $1,000 last year.
"Our parks are going to be busy over the next little while, and we want to be sure that people use them safely," Winnipeg assistant chief of emergency management Jason Shaw said.
There are five municipal bylaw enforcement officers who can enforce COVID-19 guidelines.
On Sunday afternoon, as the temperature in Winnipeg climbed to 28 degrees Celsius, Assiniboine Park was humming with families and friends taking advantage of the sunshine and warm weather as bylaw enforcement officers patrolled the park from their vehicle.
Socially distanced groups — often of no more than five people — dotted the grounds opposite The Pavilion with people sprawled out on blankets, and in the case of Carly Elder and Ann Schein, kicking back in hammocks in the shade of half a dozen trees.
The friends said with their school moving to remote learning and restrictions prohibiting them from socializing at their homes, meeting up at the park and keeping their distance in their respective hammocks was one of the few ways they could still hang out.
"Everyone should follow the restrictions and I think just finding ways like this to get out is good, and safer," Elder, 16, said, adding larger groups at the park on Sunday appeared to include people from the same family, and overall people seemed to be respecting public health rules. "We've been here most weekends, so it's usually busy like this."
Provincial park enforcement is the responsibility of the RCMP, which said it will be monitoring parks as the summer continues.
"The RCMP is present in provincial parks to ensure people are staying safe and following the rules in place to ensure everyone’s safety. That includes making sure people are abiding by current public health orders," a spokesperson for the RCMP said. "Conservation officers are also in the parks, as are local park patrols."
Const. Jay Murray, a spokesman for the Winnipeg Police Service, said the WPS will "support bylaw officers if they require police assistance" but are not responsible for monitoring recreational spots for COVID-19 regulation compliance.
Last Friday afternoon, as the clouds began to gather, Kildonan Park was already busy, with small groups keeping their distance throughout the park.
Liberty Alford and Dani Earl, both 20, have been friends for years. The pair of restaurant workers took the opportunity to meet on a blanket in the city park for a brief reprieve from isolation.
"I think lots of people are having the same idea as us — you want to meet with your friends, you still want to socialize, especially for people that are vaccinated, with vaccines rolling out and everything," she said.
"I’m definitely a little worried about it getting too packed, I guess, just depending on how long the restrictions last."
Across the sidewalk, Evelyn Smith and her friends, all health-care workers, huddled around a fold-out table, sharing fast food and listening to the radio through a phone speaker.
"I feel like they’re not allowing us to meet anymore. It seems like every day more and more," she said. "And you’re not allowed to meet in your backyard, so we decided (to meet) today because we don’t know when we’re going to meet again."
Smith said she was less worried because it was outdoors, and if it became more packed, they would leave. They hope to make the gatherings a regular part of their summer.
In the downtown area, Central Park visitor Fardowsa Abas watched her eldest daughter take to the play structure while another sat in a stroller. Abas is pregnant, and said she decided to start avoiding public parks when they began to get more crowded as the weather warmed up, but was convinced by her daughter to come one last time.
"I don’t want to come anymore… there’s too many people coming here, it’s not safe," she said.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva, Joyanne Pursaga
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.