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People walk past a contractor painting physical distance white circles across an open field at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, on May 28, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It was barely 8 a.m. on Thursday when Toronto city staff – equipped with canisters of white paint, a small tractor and measuring tape – started drawing Canada’s first network of physical-distancing circles across 38 acres of Trinity Bellwoods Park.

The crew sidestepped the odd raindrop, dog walker and Frisbee thrower to finish the job before another nice day summoned masses of cloistered urbanites onto the grass again.

The circles were a response to last Saturday’s boisterous gathering that drew an estimated 10,000 people to the park, many mingling in groups much larger than five. The crowding prompted condemnation from Ontario Premier Doug Ford and a warning from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. ”Don’t be like Toronto,” he told Calgarians.

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As pandemic restrictions loosen and the weather warms, urban parks in Toronto and elsewhere are drawing lockdown-weary residents eager to revel in old freedoms. The challenge facing city officials is how to control crowds and maintain physical-distancing measures to limit new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Physical-distancing circles, which had already been tested in select New York and San Francisco parks this month, may be implemented at other parks in Toronto if city staff deem them successful at Trinity Bellwoods. Toronto Mayor John Tory said at a briefing that the circles are meant to “help to illustrate proper physical distancing and help with the measurements, but also help to ensure a compliance in a place where we simply have to do better.”

Mr. Tory himself was photographed closely interacting with crowds and not properly wearing his mask, during a visit to the park to check on the crowd. Police received reports of public drinking by park-goers, urinating and defecating in nearby alleys.

Toronto associate medical officer of health Vinita Dubey said the circles may be useful in reminding residents of provincial emergency orders, which still prohibit gatherings of more than five people, and require individuals from different households to be at least two metres apart at all times.

“We are still learning a lot about what the best physical distancing practices are, and what kind of things we need to do differently,” Dr. Dubey said. “These are teachable moments for all of us.”

As of Friday, Toronto had reported 10,901 cases of COVID-19, 8,086 recoveries and 810 deaths. A Globe and Mail analysis of provincial data shows that the Greater Toronto Area has more than 75 per cent of Ontario’s active COVID-19 cases, with the bulk of these in Toronto and Peel Region to the west.

Dr. Dubey said that even with the addition of the circles, park-goers are still urged to carry hand sanitizer and wear masks when walking to and from the park, as well as to stay home when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. She encouraged residents who do not feel sick to continue to use the city’s green spaces.

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“With this measure we want to spread the message that going to parks can be safe,” she said. “We want you to be outdoors – it’s important to preserve mental health – but we want to do it safely and we want to protect each other.”

Toronto resident Michelle Rivard said she hopes the park circles help buck a disturbing trend of larger gatherings. Ms. Rivard has been going for regular walks through Trinity Bellwoods for the past 10 years, but said she didn’t leave her house last Saturday because of the crowds.

“Last Saturday, it was like there was no pandemic whatsoever,” she said. “I think these circles will be useful and make people feel safer. We put signage in our grocery stores so why not put signage in our parks?”

In response to last weekend’s mass gathering, the city has assigned more bylaw and police officers to Trinity Bellwoods Park. Matthew Pegg, general manager of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said that an enforcement team will be present at the park this weekend “to greet park users, remind them about the importance of physical distancing and to take enforcement action as required.”

Some jurisdictions in the U.S. have already experimented with physical-distancing circles. Domino Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., put in place 30 circles – each eight feet in diameter and distanced six feet apart – on May 15. San Francisco painted circles in four parks a week later, after its Mission Dolores Park attracted crowds even during stay-at-home orders. A spokesperson for San Francisco Recreation and Parks told American media that park-goers were using the circles correctly and that markings could be expanded to more parks in the city.

Toronto has so far been the only city in Canada to introduce physical-distancing circles. In Montreal, where Quebec Premier François Legault called out some residents for not following physical-distancing guidelines in several parks on Victoria Day weekend, spokeswoman Marilyne Laroche Corbeil said the city is not planning to implement circles in its parks. She said staggering picnic tables, closing some parking lots, adding signage, and assigning police officers to busy parks is proving effective.

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The Vancouver Park Board isn’t considering circles at this time either, because residents have shown a willingness to keep two metres apart, said Christine Ulmer, a senior communications manager with the city’s Board of Parks and Recreation.

“There are obviously outliers, but most of our residents have taken pride in following our health recommendations,” she said. “Because of that, pushing them into circles would not make much sense.“

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