“Towels were so close together you could barely see the sand”: A Q&A with Wasaga’s deputy fire chief on beach-based mayhem and some new crowd-control measures for this weekend

“Towels were so close together you could barely see the sand”: A Q&A with Wasaga’s deputy fire chief on beach-based mayhem and some new crowd-control measures for this weekend

“There were people drinking, people BBQing—and not in the designated area. I saw someone dragging a 20-pound propane tank right out onto the beach.”

Long before the pandemic, Wasaga Beach was known as the “Florida of Ontario.” But on Canada Day, the Ontario party town really lived up to its reputation. Thousands of people packed the sandy strip, paying zero attention to rules around group sizes and social distancing. The mayhem was enough to prompt an emergency council meeting and the temporary shuttering of the beach starting today. Craig Williams, Wasaga’s deputy fire chief, was on scene and is still shaken up by what he saw. Here Wasaga’s deputy fire chief, Craig Williams, explains why the Canada Day crowd was hard to control, what he’d like to see from the province and why summer at the beach is not cancelled —it’s just a little fenced in. 

You referred to the scene on Canada Day as “human behaviour at its worst.” That sounds terrible, but can you be a little more specific?
I think what I meant was human decision-making at its worst. It wasn’t like people were getting into fights, at least not from what I saw, but just that they were showing a total disregard for the rules. At the most popular beach, what we call Beach One, there were thousands and thousands of people practically on top of each other. Towels were so close together you could barely see the sand. There were people drinking, people BBQing outside the designated area. I saw someone dragging a 20-pound propane tank right out onto the beach.

Well that doesn’t sound very safe.
I know! And what’s frustrating is that people could have seen the crowds and decided to go further along. We have six beaches in Wasaga—almost 16 kilometres’ worth—many of which are quieter and more family friendly. Beach One is always the most popular, but there are other options.

Where were the police in all of this?
We had officers, both from the municipal bylaw department and from our local OPP squad who were asking people to separate and make the appropriate amount of space, but then as soon as an officer would leave, someone else would come along and take the space. I was monitoring the situation on the live feed camera before I headed over to the beach. I knew it was going to be busy, but from the camera angle, I couldn’t tell how far the crowd stretched. At a certain point, having that many people in one place becomes a safety issue, even without Covid-19. There is no simple way to shut down a crowd of that size, so we opted to monitor for the day.

Could you have been better prepared?
Certainly in the weekends leading up to Canada Day we were dealing with a similar issue, if not quite as busy. As soon as I saw the sunny weather report, I knew the holiday was going to be an issue. Our challenge is that it’s a capacity issue. We simply do not have the human resources to control crowds of that level.

Did you guys issue any tickets?
The bylaw department did issue some tickets including 324 for parking infractions. There were 70 “interactions for information and education” which means that an officer spoke to a group about breaking the rules and they were then compliant. And then there was one charge laid for a group exceeding 10 people, which means those people probably gave the officer a hard time.

Was anyone on the beach wearing a mask?
Not that I noticed. In the Simcoe-Muskoka municipality, masks will be required at all indoor public spaces as of next week, so that doesn’t apply to the beach.

What’s the plan? Have you considered social distancing circles?
We have, though obviously that would be challenging with sand. The day after Canada Day our council held an emergency meeting. The decision was made to reduce the beach parking lots by 50 per cent and then as of yesterday, the town-owned portion of the beach, which includes Beach One, was closed temporarily. Anyone caught trespassing will be subject to a $750 ticket.

So the beach is closed? Summer is cancelled?
No, not at all. We decided to close our portion of the beach for a short period, just to give us time to figure out the best way to move forward in a way that’s safe. We set up four fencing pods to close off the 800-metre strip of beach. There are spaces or walkways between each pod so that people can access the beach or parking without walking all the way around. Council is meeting again on Tuesday to propose plans for reopening. One of the things we’ll be considering is keeping the fencing in place to control the number of people. Stay tuned for that decision.

Doug Ford has said that he won’t close the provincial part of the beach and that people should just use common sense. What do you think?
I think that only works if those involved are following the rules. I have no doubt that the people who came to the beach on Canada Day are aware of Covid and know what the recommendations are. I think everybody has a different perception of what’s safe and what’s not safe. Without very clear rules and guidelines from the province, any time there is grey area or things are a bit wishy-washy, people will always take advantage.

Are you concerned that the province-owned beach will turn into the new party zone and you’ll be powerless to stop it?
As long as there is good weather, people are going to flock to the beach. Those areas may get busier, and that will be up to the parks department and the OPP to manage. But I do think that the message is getting out there. I know that last Friday the OPP issued 31 tickets for illegal alcohol consumption on the beach. We know this is an issue now and we all want to see it under control.

I understand council is writing a “strongly worded” letter to Premier Ford. How strong are we talking?
That letter is coming from the mayor who has released statements on our position. Generally what we’re saying is that we’re going to control the areas that we can control, and that we hope the province will do the same with beaches that are under provincial jurisdiction. We’re also asking for support of our local detachment, because right now they’re at capacity. We need more officers to be available.

Do you think the mayhem might have something to do with Wasaga’s reputation as party central? They don’t call you the Florida of Ontario for nothing.
I think that’s part of it. Wasaga is a place where people come to have fun, to relax. Maybe people are following the rules at home and then they want to come here and cut loose. That’s great, as long as health and safety considerations come first. Looking at what’s happening in the southern states, it’s clear how beach activity is affecting the community. We love our tourists and obviously many of our local business owners depend on them. But at the same time, we haven’t had a lot of cases here and there is concern about people coming in from Toronto and other places where numbers have been higher. It’s also just a numbers issue. A lot of people who might normally vacation outside of the country are coming here instead, and then there is a huge number of day trippers.

What is your message to those people?
For the time being, the health guidelines say that people should go to the beach that’s closest to where they live. And if they are coming to Wasaga, they should avoid making stops along the way. I understand that after so many months of this, people want to have a good time and of course they can still do that. We just have to be safe.

Speaking of break. When’s the last time you had a day off?
Last year. But I’m actually taking some time off next week. My wife and I are going to drive up to Algonquin Park and spend some time in the wilderness.

You don’t want to go to the beach?
Ha! I’ve had enough of the beach for now.