How should Manitoba penalize people who don’t practise safe distancing? Here’s what other provinces are doing

By | April 8, 2020

Manitoba can look to other governments for advice as the province considers imposing penalties on people who flout calls for physical distancing.

It could level fines as high as $1,000 for a first offence, as Alberta is doing.

The province could set up a toll-free line, like Saskatchewan, that can be used to snitch on rule-breakers. 

And it may allow police to patrol city parks, like Montreal has.

The Manitoba government has been slower than other provinces in setting consequences for dissenters, but says it plans to follow suit soon.

Premier Brian Pallister said on Monday his government will introduce measures later this week to enforce public health orders that aim to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Those measures have included limiting public gatherings to no more than 10 people, and requiring essential services businesses that remain open to ensure customers can space themselves out.

Stamping out ‘thoughtless conduct’

So far, the lengths that health officials have gone to convince people to stay apart haven’t been enough for some, Pallister lamented on Monday.

“It is a concern when people refuse to understand the hurtful consequences of their thoughtless conduct,” he said.

If the province does press ahead with more enforcement, a civil liberties advocate said any penalties should target people who intentionally endanger others — not those who make an unfortunate mistake.

“I think people will have more trouble to deal with [penalties] when it seemed more innocent than when it’s more flagrant,” said Amy Robertson, president of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties.

A lineup of people maintaining a distance from one another while waiting to enter Dino’s Grocery Mart in Winnipeg. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

During this pandemic, people are already forgoing their individual rights for the betterment of society, Robertson said. It’s why Manitobans are largely complying with measures like limits on gatherings and closing non-essential businesses.

“I think people are OK with that because we are making these sacrifices for the collective,” she said. “When you see someone not putting in that same effort, I think we’re OK with [penalties].”

Although the public health orders are in effect, enforcing physical distancing regulations would mark a shift for the province.

Winnipeg’s police force has said there’s nothing it can do when it receives public complaints, some of which have been reported to 911. Const. Rob Carver said it cannot act without guidance from the provincial government.

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The RCMP is focusing on explaining the purpose of physical distancing and the ban on gatherings larger than 10 people, rather than throwing the book at those who break the rules.

“Our priority is on education and we are using discretion when it comes to enforcing measures related to COVID-19,” an RCMP statement read.

“However, we will arrest individuals who willfully disregard public health measures and potentially endanger others.”

A lot of people are getting the point of physical distancing in Manitoba, as evidenced by some emptier streets, but not everybody. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

On Monday, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said a crackdown on non-compliance cannot come soon enough.

His office has raised the issue with the province for multiple days, and he says city staff and officials have heard numerous inquiries about gatherings of more than 10 people.

120 calls a day about COVID-19

The city’s 311 line is receiving around 120 messages every weekday on topics related to COVID-19, a spokesperson said Tuesday.

Other jurisdictions are already enforcing consequences for violating public health orders and bylaws.

Cities such as Toronto, Mississauga and Vancouver are levelling stiff fines.

In Ottawa, bylaw officers doled out 43 tickets last weekend, including one to a man who ripped caution tape off a play structure so his children could use it, and another citation to friends who sat on a park bench.

Twenty-one people from London, Ont., were hit with fines for using closed public places, mainly skateboard parks. 

Police cadets patrol a city park in Montreal, Sunday, April 5, 2020, after officers are given the authority to fine people for being too close together. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Montreal police handed out nearly 150 tickets to people who weren’t respecting the ban on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Robertson said the Manitoba government should steer away from financial penalties, since they disadvantage marginalized populations who may struggle financially.

“I think applying a fine will have much more detrimental effect than imposing a restriction on their liberty for even a short amount of time,” said Robertson, who argues an arrest likely serves as a strong enough penalty, and an period of imprisonment likely isn’t necessary.

Pallister said on Monday he wanted to ensure his enforcement measures are constitutional before rolling them out.

The province has established fines of up to $50,000, or imprisonment for up to six months, for non-essential businesses that are staying open when they shouldn’t be.

To date, businesses have been complying after a phone call or visit from a public health official, the province said in a statement, adding an educational approach has been effective for businesses thus far.

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