Winkler police say enforcement of COVID-19 rules in the southern Manitoba city isn’t lax and the situation is ‘not as bad as it’s portrayed.’
Chief Ryan Hunt spoke out Tuesday, after the Free Press reported concerns about the number of shoppers failing to wear face masks at two big box stores in Winkler.
Some customers felt the situation was getting worse and they wanted Winkler Police Service and Manitoba Justice to crack down on those flouting pandemic public health regulations.
Hunt said his officers and provincial officials regularly conduct face mask checks in indoor public places, and defended Winkler residents.
"I know there’s a high number of people not following the public health orders," he said. "I’m not naive to that. It’s not as bad as it’s portrayed; there are more people wearing than not."
At the city police level, there hasn’t been an increase in complaints about maskless shoppers and there hasn’t been much discussion about stepping up enforcement efforts, said Hunt.
"I also don’t know if it needs to increase," the chief said.
Hunt said he personally visited stores "out of curiosity" Monday night, adding he "probably got lucky," because 95 per cent of shoppers were wearing masks.
"At other times, it’s 85 per cent compliance," the police chief said. "Our area certainly is seeing a large rate of non-compliance of the health orders but why that is, I wouldn’t want to speculate.
"It’s probably linked to the same reason the vaccination uptake is low. I can’t put a finger as to why that is but I’m sure the two are connected."
Enforcement blitzes by Winkler police officers and provincial officials take place once a week; Hunt estimated 10 to 15 public health-directed tickets are handed out during the sessions that last three to four hours.
The individual fine for failing to wear a face mask in an indoor public place is $298.
Amid constant reports of the area’s low vaccination rate, Winkler residents aren’t happy with the way they are being perceived by other Manitobans, the police chief said.
"There’s definitely frustration felt from the tension that we’re getting from across the province and outside of our area," Hunt said. "There’s a lot of good people here. It’s a fantastic community.
"We’re going to get through it and we’re going to be on the other side of it."
In September, Hunt wrote a Facebook post about a divide in the community of more than 12,000 and some residents becoming angry when the rules are enforced and they are ticketed.
"It is concerning to realize that drug traffickers and career criminals are more respectful to law enforcement than people who decide not to wear a mask," he wrote at the time.
On Tuesday, Justice Minister Cameron Friesen, also the MLA for Morden-Winkler, defended Manitoba’s public health order enforcement strategy, describing it as "more intense" than other Western provinces.
In a statement, he said 70 per cent of the 164 tickets issued between Oct. 4 and Dec. 5 were in the southern region of the province. Of those, 80 per cent were given to people for failing to wear a mask in a public place.
"While the vast majority of citizens are complying with public health orders, there is a group who continue to not comply, and in doing so, put others at risk," Friesen said. "It’s important to remember that enforcing the provincial public health orders is not a one-approach-fits-all strategy.
"We will continue to work to provide information to the public, and to enforce the public health orders provincewide."
Figures from Manitoba Justice show the province has collected 10 per cent of all COVID-19 pandemic-related fines.
A total of 2,391 tickets, amounting to $3.3 million in fines, were handed out for violations between April 9, 2020, and Tuesday.
As of Dec. 5, just under $350,000 had been paid.
Manitoba Justice was unable to provide figures on the number of people who’ve appealed tickets or who’ve been unable to obtain or renew a driver’s licence or vehicle registration due to unpaid fines.
Data on the number of cases referred to a collection agency was not available.