Officers who broke up a massive gathering in a Hamilton parking lot hours after the provincial government tried to clamp down on such events won't hesitate to lay charges in the case, police warned Sunday as they announced an investigation was underway.
Hamilton Police Supt. Will Mason said the hundreds of people that congregated in the Ancaster area on Saturday were blatantly disregarding new provincial rules meant to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford, spurred on by rising case numbers, lowered limits for both indoor and outdoor social gatherings provincewide on Saturday. Recently passed legislation also sets steep fines for those contravening the limits, with event organizers facing a minimum penalty of $10,000 and attendees potentially on the hook for at least $750.
Mason said investigators would make use of the new law if they're able to identify the organizers of Saturday's mass gathering.
"We absolutely think the actions last night, in light of the concern with COVID-19, are abhorrent," Mason said at a Sunday afternoon news conference. "The participants should be ashamed of themselves, and if we can identify them and we are able to lay charges down the road, we will certainly be doing that."
Police said investigators received a tip from a neighbouring force on Saturday afternoon suggesting street racers were planning to hold an event in Ancaster later that day.
They said the suspected organizers of the event dubbed "Mega Meet 2.0" are known to cause "traffic chaos" across the Greater Toronto Area.
The group's events draw anywhere from 50 to 300 "street racing style" cars to race and drift, in some cases swarming police officers on foot or using their vehicles to block highway ramps.
Mason said officers found a large group of people on-hand when they arrived, and the crowd grew steadily over the next hour until it completely filled the parking lots of a local movie theatre and book store, as well as spilling over onto other nearby properties.
Mason said a multi-jurisdictional team meant to combat street racing was called to support Hamilton police. The team is comprised of officers from the Ontario Provincial Police as well as the York and Peel regional services, he added.
Mason said officers were concerned both with the risks of spreading COVID-19 and the potential harm any street racing activity could cause.
In a written statement, Hamilton police said the need to break up the crowd for the sake of public health outweighed the importance of ticketing those present, so no charges or fines have been laid to date.
But investigators said they were working to identify the organizers so the appropriate charges can be brought against them.
Ford issued a statement weighing in on the event and taking the participants to task for violating tightened public health protocols hours after they took effect. The new rules, which apply provincewide for the next 28 days, lower the cap on indoor gatherings to 10 and outdoor events to 25.
"The reckless behaviour that we saw in Ancaster last night was totally unacceptable," the premier said in a statement. "While Ontario has made incredible progress in the fight against COVID-19, we cannot take that progress for granted. This fight isn't over and now is not the time to let our guard down."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2020.
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press