Alberta increasing fines, upping enforcement for people who break public health rules
CALGARY -- Alberta is doubling the penalty for people who break rules under the Public Health Act (PHA) and is introducing "a new enforcement protocol to more effectively target flagrant noncompliance," Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Wednesday.
Premier Jason Kenney also said his government has given the department of justice the go-ahead to hire more designated prosecutors to handle tickets issued under the PHA. Hiring private sector law firms to help deal with the increase in tickets is also being considered, Kenney said.
It comes after several large protests and events took place in Alberta in defiance of public health measures.
"It's become clear there are a small few who refuse to comply with reasonable and legitimate public health orders," Madu said.
"Action must be taken, and action we are taking."
Fines for tickets issued under the PHA now start at $2,000. Madu says, in some cases, local police will work with Alberta Health Services, Alberta Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis, Occupational Health & Safety, and the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service.
"We need concrete action to address the ongoing and escalating threat on public health," he said.
The justice minister said there has not been an order from him or anyone in his ministry telling police to hold off on issuing tickets as to not overwhelm the courts
On Monday, Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld told city councillors his officers were instructed to take a more strategic approach to enforcement.
"Our partners at the province have asked us not to fill the courts with $100 mask bylaw tickets and to be more strategic in the enforcement, so we've done that," Neufeld said.
Calgary police say about 76 per cent of the tickets issued under the PHA that have made it to court have been withdrawn or quashed by the Crown or the Ticket Control Unit.
Across the province, 576 tickets were issued under the PHA between March 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 -- just 12 per cent have resulted in a conviction so far.
Madu says the government does not instruct police or prosecutors how to proceed with enforcement, but he says they are looking into why so many tickets have been withdrawn, calling it "regrettable."
CAFÉ CLOSED, RODEO BEING INVESTIGATED
Part of Alberta's increased enforcement was on display Wednesday morning when AHS shut down a café in Mirror, Alta. A video shows officers present and the doors to the Whistle Stop Café chained shut.
The establishment was repeatedly flouting public health rules for months, AHS said, including opening for indoor dining. The café owners had been issued at least two previous closure orders this year and AGLC removed its food and liquor license last weekend.
AHS says it had received 413 complaints from the public about the venue since the start of the year.
The justice minister also says a weekend rodeo in Bowden, Alta. that saw thousands of people attend with limited distancing and masks is being looked at by multiple agencies, including RCMP.
"There is ongoing investigation in relation to that particular event," Madu said, adding that police and AHS met with organizers of the event before it took place to inform them that the rodeo should not proceed.
"I am confident with the new protocol put in place you will see a more proactive response," he said.
POLICE CHIEF STATEMENT
Early Wednesday evening, Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld issued a statement to CTV News.
"Let me start by saying that I fully appreciate the frustration of many fellow Calgarians – I feel it too," Neufeld said. "The majority of Calgarians have been following the public health orders and, in doing so, have made very significant personal sacrifices. People have lost opportunities to visit with family, celebrate weddings, attend funerals, or be beside loved ones when they have passed."
"To have experienced all that the past 14 months has offered, only to see others completely ignore the rules, is unbelievably difficult for the majority of us."
"When it comes to responding to those who refuse to follow public health orders, we began the pandemic with an emphasis on engagement and education. We recognized people were struggling to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances we faced and that many could ill-afford fines and penalties for non-compliance."
"For a time, positive engagement and encouragement were largely successful as a means of dealing with the majority of the issues that cropped up," he added. "As time has passed, I think all of us were hopeful that we had been through the worst and that the arrival of the vaccines would flatten the curve.
"As we entered into this punishing third wave, it’s obvious that did not come to be," he said, continuing. "In the midst of our present circumstances, we are seeing increasing levels of frustration, resistance and non-compliance."
"As case numbers and hospitalizations have climbed," he said, "these behaviours are putting our community at risk."
"Though we have been taking enforcement action when it has been lawful and safe to do so, we have heard the voices of those who feel we can do more. The enforcement framework announced today helps to formalize several critical partnerships that must be aligned if enforcement activities are to be successful."
"It will ensure stronger collaboration and more efficient use of the existing powers each agency has available to focus on repeat offenders – individuals, groups and businesses."
"We are currently working through this framework to identify priorities by health region and to operationalize the protocols."
"We will have more to say in the coming days; however, I assure you that we will use all lawful authorities to ensure Calgarians remain safe in the days and weeks ahead. We appreciate your continued support and cooperation; we encourage all Calgarians to remain strong and continue to follow public health orders."