TORONTO -- Ontario's stay-at-home order is now in effect for the province but the government said police don't have the authority to randomly stop residents on the street to make sure their trip is essential.

The stay-at-home order began at 12:01 on Thursday morning and was put in place by the Ford government to help curb the spread of COVID-19 as it threatens to overwhelm the province’s healthcare system.

The order requires residents to stay home except for essential outings, such as accessing health care, shopping for groceries, or outdoor exercise. The province has said there's no set definition for what is "essential" because everyone has their own unique circumstances and regional considerations.

A spokesman for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the order doesn't give police the power to enter homes or stop vehicles solely to check if the measure is being followed.

Residents travelling to work are also not required to have proof from their boss that they are doing so.

"On its own, being outside is not sufficient evidence of a failure to comply with the stay-at-home order," spokesman Stephen Warner said.

Critics have called the order unclear but Premier Doug Ford has asked residents to use their "best judgment" in deciding whether to go out.

On Thursday morning, the Ontario government issued an emergency alert to all cellphones, televisions and radios warning that the province's stay-at-home order is now in effect.

The alert was issued at 10 a.m. on Thursday by Jones. 

"A stay-at-home order is in effect. Only leave home for essential purposes such as food, healthcare, exercise or work. It’s the law. Stay home, stay safe, save lives," the alert read.

Several police forces said they were still reviewing the details of the measure. The province sent police services a memo on enforcing the order but refused to make it public.

A spokeswoman for Peel Regional Police said the service planned to respond to complaints about violations of the order but would not be stopping drivers and pedestrians to see where they are going.

The Toronto Police Service said its message is to "stay home and stay safe."

“This is no longer strictly a public health issue, it is a matter of public safety," Deputy Chief Myron Demkiw said. "We each have a personal responsibility to limit our travel to essential reasons only to slow the spread of COVID-19 and try to keep our families and communities safe and support our hospitals and health-care workers."

The service added that no element of the stay-at-home order provides “police with either the power to enter dwellings nor the authority to stop a vehicle for the singular purpose of checking compliance.”

Additionally, the service said, individuals are “not compelled to explain why they are out of their residence, nor is being outside prima facie evidence of failure to comply with the stay-at-home order.”

Ontarians caught violating the stay-at-home order could face a fine and prosecution under the Reopening Ontario Act and the Emergency Management and Civil Emergency Management (EMPCA).

Penalties for breaking the stay-at-home order could include up to a year in jail, according to Jones.

With files from The Canadian Press.