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No picnic: Man fined $880 says he was just taking a rest logo 2020-04-29 Idil Mussa
A pedestrian walks past a boarded up business in downtown Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, April 16, 2020. © THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick A pedestrian walks past a boarded up business in downtown Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, April 16, 2020.

An Ottawa man handed a hefty fine for breaking physical distancing rules is disputing a bylaw officer's claim that he was having a picnic in a city park, arguing he had only stopped to take a call while his pregnant wife continued walking.

Wasim Soufi, 35, said he and his wife, Rasha Haj Ali, 30, ventured to Strathcona Park in Sandy Hill on April 18 to go for a walk on the advice of Ali's doctor.

Ali was due to give birth any day. The couple's daughter, Julia Soufi, was born Friday.

"I was just forced to go outside because of my wife who needs to walk," said Soufi, who arrived in Canada in November 2017 as a refugee from Syria.

Soufi said the trouble began when he received an international call on his mobile phone. As Ali continued walking, he sat on the grass — away from other pedestrians — to take the call.

"I just sat down for maybe one or two minutes," he said.

Prior warning given, city says

But according to a statement to CBC from Roger Chapman, the city's director of bylaw and regulatory services, an officer observed Soufi "having a picnic on a blanket with open food containers." Chapman added Soufi had "previously received a verbal warning approximately 2.5 hours earlier the same day" for contravening physical distancing restrictions, which forbid any activity in city parks other than passing through.

While Soufi admitted to carrying a water bottle and a bag of cucumbers he had just purchased, he said there was no blanket and no picnic, and he denied receiving prior warning.

"I told [the bylaw official] it wasn't a picnic, I just stopped," he said.

But Chapman insisted "bylaw and regulatory services had a previous interaction with [Soufi] and issued a verbal warning at the time.... [Soufi] confirmed he understood the restrictions in effect and on the second interaction was issued a charge under the Emergency Management and Civil Protections Act."

That charge carries with it a fine totalling $880.

'Not a small amount'

Soufi said he had previously asked another bylaw officer to clarify the physical distancing rules, and said he was told people can't gather in groups or sit on benches. He said he had no idea it was also against the law to sit on the grass for a few minutes.

"Eight-hundred [and] eighty [dollars] is not a small amount," Soufi said. "I cannot afford [the fine] with all of these big expenses for the baby."

Anyone receiving a ticket can declare their intention to fight the charge online.

According to the city, since April 3, bylaw officials have "responded to more than 3,527 calls pertaining to suspected violations of COVID-19 measures and issued 104 tickets. The nature of these calls include violations of park closures, gatherings of more than five people and non-exempted businesses that continue to provide services."

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