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People exercise at an outdoor skating rink during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Jan. 14, 2021.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government says its new stay-at-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19 does not give law enforcement unfettered power to enter people’s properties, force them to explain why they are outside or stop them in their cars, as some police forces reported being “overwhelmed” with worried calls from the public.

The order, which came into effect on Thursday at 12:01 a.m. and lasts until at least Feb. 11, does not require workers to provide proof that they are travelling to or from their workplace, the government said. Instead, it’s intended to limit the public’s contacts and includes a list of exemptions, including essential trips for food, medicine, exercise or work.

“On its own, being outside is not sufficient evidence of a failure to comply with the stay-at-home order,” Stephen Warner, a spokesman for Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones, said in a statement on Thursday.

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“As is the case with any law, police are encouraged to make reasonable inquiries to determine if individuals are in compliance with the orders.”

Joe Couto, a spokesman for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said the order is intended to stop social gatherings that are fuelling, in part, the rise in COVID-19 infections. “Gatherings are still a huge problem ... we’re still hearing about COVID parties,” he said. “You are probably going to see more enforcement, because people are going to be more aware.”

Across much of the province, municipal police agencies urged the public to stop calling emergency lines with questions about the new measures.

“Our communicators are being overwhelmed with 911 calls asking about the stay-at-home orders,” said a Tweet from Peel Regional Police on Thursday, urging the public to check the government’s website and “save 911 for emergencies.”

Others worried the new rules could result in rights violations.

Toronto criminal defence lawyer Alison Craig said she was concerned that what could amount to street checks made by police looking to enforce the stay-at-home order would become pretext for arrests for other alleged crimes. And she warned that police, armed with ambiguous new powers, would disproportionately use them in poor, racialized neighbourhoods.

“Reasonable inquiries? What does that mean?” said Ms. Craig, a partner at law firm Lockyer Campbell Posner. “Street checks were stopped for a reason – and this sounds to me like a licence to return to them.”

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Michael Bryant, the former Ontario cabinet minister who heads the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, praised the order for excluding homeless people, who he said faced many tickets for pandemic offences in the first wave, and are not exempt from Quebec’s curfew order. But he remains concerned with how police and bylaw officers will address any violations. “The devil will be in the details of its enforcement,” Mr. Bryant said.

On Thursday, police in Windsor, Ont., charged four people involved in an early-morning lockdown protest in the city’s downtown, violating the first day of the order. Windsor police did not release the names of the accused, stating only they were charged for participating in a gathering of more than five people.

Several police forces issued press releases assuring residents that there are clear legal limits to the order. “Officers can exercise discretion in every situation,” said Toronto Deputy Chief Myron Demkiw. “But, where there is evidence of non-compliance, officers will be ticketing and issuing summonses for individuals and businesses.” Tickets ranging from $750 to $1,000 could be issued for disobeying the stay-at-home order, with $100,000 fines and jail time for matters pursued in court.

Meanwhile, Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, said Thursday that provincial inspectors, as well as local bylaw and police officers, were launching a blitz this weekend of big-box retailers in the Greater Toronto Area to ensure they are following COVID-19 rules, such as distancing and mask-wearing. Inspectors were also heading to workplaces where outbreaks were occurring, such as factories and warehouses, and would focus on areas such as break rooms, where public-health officials say the virus is spreading.

Mr. McNaughton defended his government’s refusal to enhance the federal government’s $500-a-week, two-week sick-pay benefit for workers. Public-health experts, municipal leaders and opposition politicians say more funding is necessary to ensure everyone can afford to stay home from work if they have symptoms that could be COVID-19.

Mr. McNaughton noted that his government made it illegal to fire workers who need to self-isolate or care for someone in isolation. And he said he was on the phone with federal ministers last weekend, asking Ottawa to speed up payments so the money flows much faster after workers apply. He said 80,000 workers in Ontario had so far taken advantage of the federal benefit.

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With a report from Patrick White in Toronto

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