Nearly 1,000 Manitoba residents and businesses have now racked up more than $1.3 million in fines for COVID-19 public-health order violations.
Provincial governments and municipalities began going after rule-breakers within weeks after the pandemic was declared last spring.
Several provinces set up online tip forms or telephone snitch lines urging people to report scofflaw neighbours. Governments quickly imposed fine structures and doled out warnings to give teeth to newly implemented emergency orders.
Nearly a year later, though, it’s hard to tell what effect pandemic enforcement has had on Canadians’ behaviour because it hasn’t been studied.
It’s also unclear how many of Manitoba’s COVID fines have been paid, and how many are being appealed by those who say they either didn’t break the rules, or shouldn’t have to follow them. Tensions appear to be running high; a Winnipeg enforcement officer was allegedly assaulted on the job last week.
But tension between the realms of public health and politics, especially when it comes to penalties and public-shaming, existed long before COVID-19’s arrival and isn’t going away any time soon, experts say.
The ethos in the field of public health eschews blame and punishment in favour of encouragement and safe alternatives. (Doctors know shaming smokers won't help them quit.) But in a pandemic, when one person’s actions can put many lives at risk, public-health orders have to be enforceable.
Fear of being fined has driven people "underground" and unwilling to be forthcoming about their activities, making it harder for contact tracers to do their work in several jurisdictions, says Ian Culbert, the Ottawa-based executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.
“You would be hard–pressed to find a medical officer of health or a chief medical officer of health anywhere in this country that is going to say that public shaming or the use of punishment is a long–term effective tool in preventing the spread of COVID–19." – Ian Culbert
It’s been a concern in Manitoba, too: chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin has spoken about the problems enforcement poses for contact tracers.
"You would be hard-pressed to find a medical officer of health or a chief medical officer of health anywhere in this country that is going to say that public shaming or the use of punishment is a long-term effective tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19," Culbert says.
Most public-health officials, he says, would likely prefer to see warnings issued instead of fines, which he says should only be a last resort.
Initially, Manitoba enforcement officials issued many more warnings than tickets. That changed after the province went into code-red restrictions in November, the same time the provincial government started publicly posting the names of fined businesses. Individuals aren’t named.
"I know that it was, oftentimes, the automatic response of some governments. I think that speaks to a desire to be perceived as taking action," Culbert says.
"It's also the easiest thing to do. It takes more time and energy to convince people to do the right thing than it does to simply punish them for doing the wrong thing."
Manitoba’s enforcement system has targeted repeat offenders — an explicitly anti-mask church and a small grocery store that also didn’t enforce the mask rule have been fined several times since last November.
Despite orders requiring houses of worship to close, the Church of God (Restoration) in the RM of Hanover has been regularly posting livestreamed videos of its indoor, maskless Sunday services and has been fined at least six times.
After its fourth $5,000 fine, Prairie Foods Plum Coulee was ordered to shut down earlier this month, according to a post on its Facebook page, explaining to commenters that it allowed customers and staff to be in the store without wearing masks if they said they had a medical exemption. A representative of the business couldn’t be reached for comment.
A Manitoba Justice spokesperson said the department couldn’t say how many fines have been paid or appealed because those payments are made through the provincial offences court. The department also wouldn’t release any information about fines that are currently before the court — some of which are being challenged.
Three months after Premier Brian Pallister publicly shamed the Corona Hotel in Glenella for receiving a $1,296 ticket from an inspector who deemed there were people inside drinking and playing pool in violation of the health order, owner Bob Fuglsang is still waiting to find out if he’ll have to pay the fine.
Fuglsang maintains the hotel and bar were closed and only he and five of his family members were present, his grandson playing with the billiard balls. Fuglsang, who is contesting the ticket, has repeatedly said the inspector didn’t enter the beverage room and wrote the ticket based on what he heard, not what he saw.
Since then, Fuglsang says he’s received more than 100 phone calls and letters from Manitobans who are on his side.
"They said when we open up, they're all coming… people that we never even heard of or seen before," he says. "So, if we ever do open up, hopefully it helps, but I don't know when that's gonna be."
He’s not the only rural small business owner challenging a COVID-19 ticket. In more than one case, online crowdfunding campaigns sprang up in attempts to help owners recoup the cost of what some community members saw as unjust enforcement.
At his dollar store in Ashern, Kai Hong has also been inundated with notes of support — and even baked goods — after he was fined $5,000 at the end of November. Hong maintains the ticket was issued because an inspector deemed his efforts to block off non-essential items with tape were insufficient, according to his son Manny Hong. Kai spoke briefly to the Free Press on the phone and referred questions to his adult son because his first language is Korean and his English is limited.
"I'll be honest with you, if my dad was doing something illegal and he got a ticket, I'll say OK, yeah, he did wrong. But that... is not fair." – Manny Hong
The language barrier may have contributed to the problem, says Manny, who lives in Toronto. The business was already dealing with significantly lower sales in the pandemic, but Kai was taking the virus seriously, his son says, adding his father told him he wasn’t selling non-essential items and was issued the ticket without a warning.
He decided to challenge the fine, but set aside the $5,000 in case he did have to pay it. About a month later, Kai’s wife died of cancer and the family was unable to put that money toward her funeral, Manny says.
"I'll be honest with you, if my dad was doing something illegal and he got a ticket, I'll say OK, yeah, he did wrong. But that... is not fair," Manny says.
At the time, Manitoba public-health orders required business owners to restrict customers’ access to any products that weren’t on the government’s list of essential goods and prevent their sales.
Seeing others break the rules, or watching the restrictions being unevenly applied, says University of Manitoba community health sciences professor Michelle Driedger, brings out people’s sense of "righteous injustice," another thing officials have to tackle as the pandemic wears on. They have to strike the right balance by conducting enforcement that shows the public health orders must be taken seriously, but doesn’t create undue fear of being fined.
"There is no magical solution to all of this," Driedger says.
It’s also not helpful, she says, for people to make snap judgments when hearing about Manitobans who tested positive and had a large number of contacts — figures that are occasionally mentioned by Roussin and his counterparts as a way to warn the public to stay home and maintain physical distance.
Driedger says the public needs to understand how quickly those numbers balloon — having two dozen contacts doesn’t necessarily mean someone hosted a party. Small gatherings, even ones that fit within the current rules, can still spread the virus quickly.
Heightened concern about the potential spread of more contagious COVID-19 variants makes it even more important for the public to follow the rules, and to see consistent and transparent rationale from public-health officials and politicians. Canadians may still be more likely to trust information when it comes from medical professionals. That’s been true in recent COVID-related studies Driedger conducted.
"It's not just, 'Do this because it's the right thing to do,’ or, ‘It will reduce our infections'." – Ian Culbert
"We certainly saw this in Winnipeg focus groups and in other cities," she says. "When there was a health professional providing a lot of the communication, there was much greater trust and acceptance in what was being communicated to them. There wasn't always that same kind of trust and acceptance if it was from a non-health professional or if it was from an elected official."
Earlier in February, the Canadian Public Health Association released its review of Canada’s initial response to COVID-19. The review didn’t look at enforcement, but among its recommendations is a call for clear and consistent communication on emergency management.
Other reviews have acknowledged Canada lacks federal public-health officials who are trained in behavioural sciences, Culbert says, and know how to properly explain the rationale behind their recommendations so the public can understand.
"It's not just, 'Do this because it's the right thing to do,’ or, ‘It will reduce our infections,’ he says. "Often, people need more than that, especially when we're talking about a pandemic that's going on for over a year now."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.