PACKED public parks were a common sight over the weekend, leaving some concerned the decision to ban private outdoor gatherings in Manitoba has introduced new problems while attempting to fix others.
Saturday afternoon at Birds Hill Provincial Park, cars were parked on the main road as the parking lots for trails and group use areas were full. Traffic was heavy with vehicles crammed with families who had picnic supplies, bikes and pets in tow.
Groups of people sat together as they barbecued and children played. In one area, a couple got married in a physically distanced ceremony that included a handful of onlookers.
People had even settled into the area reserved for the Winnipeg Folk Festival, usually a zone that doesn’t get much use.
Far-flung trails in the park, which is 35 square kilometres, that are usually quiet, had a steady flow of visitors.
"It was probably the busiest I’ve ever seen it, other than the folk festival," said one park attendee.
A spokesperson from the City of Winnipeg said Monday community bylaw enforcement officers would be monitoring city parks to investigate complaints related to large public outdoor gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr warned additional enforcement and policing for people who are at least attempting to follow the province’s guidelines could cause more harm than good.
"The irony, perhaps, is these clusters of people that are getting together are actually indicative of people that are following the rules, and they need safe options for their physical well-being, for emotional well-being, and (gathering) outdoors is the safest option," she said.
"So having enhanced policing in spaces where we’ve told people, if you’re following the rules, this is where to go, can create even more stress and anxiety. And (leave) people saying, ‘I just don’t know what to do anymore. I’m going where you told me to go. I’m following the rules. And now in that setting, I also can’t enjoy myself because there’s more enforcement going on.’"
Gathering outdoors is still the safest way to gather, by far, Carr said, and the province’s messaging needs to stay consistent so that people don’t feel misled by it.
Policing should be focused on the "storm of risk brewing" the province is facing in other areas at the moment. Any enforcement should be directed at instances of open flouting of public health guidelines, including large in-person gatherings that have been reported recently, Carr said.
"For me, (it’s about) how do we make sure that we’re looking at science-based guidance that makes sense for people to follow. Because the more it appears that we’re making rules that don’t make sense, the more opportunity or risk there is that people just stop trying and get together indoors, because they need for their social well-being to see other people."
As the weather continues to warm up, and the possibility of crowded public outdoor gathering spaces becoming a new hurdle to overcome, Carr suggested looking at ways of "keeping as many layers of risk protection in place" rather than rescinding restrictions currently in place.
A possible example, requiring masks to be worn outdoors.
"There’s a great deal of counter opinions in terms of the utility of wearing masks outdoors, particularly if you’re following distancing those kinds of things," she said.
"But for me, I’d rather see that as a consistent hard-and-fast rule that allowed people to use their own property outdoors to get together, so that you’re moving away some of this crowding."
— with files from Laurie Bailey
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.