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How physical distancing enforcement is negatively affecting Canada’s marginalized communities

COVID-19 has prompted wide-ranging physical distancing ticketing measures across the country, with over $5.8 million in coronavirus-related fines reported by May of this year. Some fines, like those in Saskatchewan, are as high as $2,000, while in other provinces, like Newfoundland and Labrador, violations can even result in jail time.

Advocates rang alarm bells early, warning that physical distancing enforcement could have a negative impact on marginalized groups, including low-income people or those experiencing homelessness who are unable to pay fines, new Canadians with language barriers, or members of Black communities, who are disproportionately affected by police violence. 

In Ottawa, a 21-year-old refugee from Syria with limited English language skills was fined $880 for allowing his younger sibling to climb on playground equipment in a park while otherwise observing physical distancing rules. In Hamilton, a man experiencing homelessness was fined the same amount for sitting near a group of people outside a health centre. 

Evidence suggests that fines have not been meted out equally. In late May, a large crowd of thousands of people, most of whom appeared to be white, gathered at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto. Despite thousands of park-goers being in close proximity to each other, Toronto police issued only four tickets that day. 

Disparities in how physical distancing fines are enforced are even more clear in the United States, where race-specific data related to policing is more robust. In New York City, about 80 per cent of fines were handed out to Black or Latino New Yorkers. According to a ProPublica study of three court districts in Ohio, Black residents were “at least four times as likely to be charged with violating the stay-at-home order as white people.” 

In Canada, over-policing and discriminatory practices against Black Canadians have also been a long-standing problem. One recent example is the discriminatory “carding” policies used by law enforcement in Toronto which unfairly targeted Black residents. 

Carding, which has since been banned, allowed law enforcement to stop and confront any resident and collect their information, and resulted in the racist mistreatment of Black Torontonians. A 2014 analysis by the Toronto Star found that — despite only being about 8 percent of the city’s population — approximately 27 percent of all carding incidents in Toronto after July 2013 involved Black people. 

Carding is just one of the many ways Black Canadians have been targeted by police. A 2018 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that “between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service.” The report also showed that “Black people were over-represented in use of force cases (28.8%), shootings (36%), deadly encounters (61.5%) and fatal shootings (70%).” 

The Ontario government’s recent physical distancing enforcement measures allow police to stop anyone they perceive to be in violation of the COVID-19 emergency orders, which the Canadian Civil Liberties Association directly compares to carding. “At best, this new Order is reckless and dangerous. At worst, it could be seen as a bald attempt to re-animate carding and re-populate a database with information about the residents of this city, and in particular, individuals who are racialized, Indigenous, homeless, have mental-health issues, or are otherwise marginalized,” wrote Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the organization’s director of equality.

While Black communities tend to be over-policed, they also tend to be under-resourced and lower-income, with many people working in low-wage jobs (many of which are now deemed “essential”). This makes it more likely they will be outside of their home where they are vulnerable to encounters with law enforcement.

Any interaction with police can be risky, but a pandemic adds an additional layer of risk because it puts individuals in close contact with potentially infected officers. Police in Toronto and across Canada have reported positive cases of COVID-19 among officers. In New York City, that number has reached more than 1,400 cases among NYPD employees. 

Not only are measures like these dangerous and racially biased, criminologists have cast doubt on the effectiveness of fines when it comes to enforcing physical distancing, arguing that they rely too much on blaming individuals in order to change widespread behaviour. But what experts can agree on is that widespread testing and contact tracing — rather than unfairly targeting marginalized groups — is the key to curbing the spread of COVID-19.