Public health inspectors facing threats, harassment during COVID-19 pandemic

Alberta Health Services is introducing new training to help its public health inspectors handle enforcement visits that have become increasingly hostile during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

'Let's just be kind to one another,' pleads Alberta branch president of national body

The Whistle Stop has been at the centre of a high-profile legal battle over enforcement and a public debate over the strains that pandemic-related health orders have placed on small business. (Whistle Stop/Facebook)

Alberta Health Services is introducing new training to help its public health inspectors handle enforcement visits that have become increasingly hostile during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Inspectors are facing threats, doxing and online bullying, often while their actions are recorded or live-streamed by the people they are attempting to work with.

Meaghan Allen, Alberta branch president of Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors, said inspectors have had work phone numbers and licence plate numbers posted online. Some have been followed, creating fears for personal safety.

Allen, an AHS health inspector in Edmonton, said it was once rare to be videotaped during an inspection. 

"Now it's common to go to a business and have four or five people with the cameras in your face following you to your car, taking pictures of your licence plate, posting it on Facebook or social media," she said. 

"It shows up on other forms of media, sometimes taken out of context. And it's a platform where people can provide mean and hateful comments." 

An example of what inspectors are facing occurred early Wednesday when AHS and RCMP padlocked the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, Alta.

Owner Chris Scott has been operating in defiance of AHS orders to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

As authorities locked him out of his business, Scott live streamed the event on his phone via Facebook Live. He could be heard yelling and arguing with AHS inspectors and RCMP officers. 

"This is disgusting!" he shouted. "How can any one of you sleep at night with what you're doing right now?"

Scott argued with inspectors and RCMP officers throughout his 40-minute live stream, alleging a breach of his constitutional rights. He chided inspectors as they drove away. 

Another viral video showed Artur Pawlowski, the pastor of Calgary's Street Church Ministries, shouting at an AHS inspector who arrived at his church with Calgary police and peace officers. Pawlowski's church continues to hold services which violate capacity limits.

Harassment 'never OK'

Some public health inspectors work for the federal government and industry, but most in the province are employed by Alberta Health Services.

They are tasked with enforcing COVID-19 restrictions on top of their usual duties of inspecting day cares, restaurants, continuing care homes and personal-care facilities like hair and esthetics salons. 

Most business owners are respectful and collaborative, Allen said. 

However, the increasingly hostile environment around COVID-19 restrictions has prompted AHS to update its training programs to reflect the hostile situations inspectors are facing.

AHS introduced new online training this week in violence and harassment prevention, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said. He said staff are encouraged to tell their managers if they are bullied or harassed. Peer support and counselling is offered to anyone who needs it. 

"Harassment and behaviour of this kind is never OK and will not be accepted," Williamson said.

Allen said inspectors are accompanied by police officers when required. She said AHS has allowed inspectors to rent vehicles if they fear someone will follow them home or post their licence-plate numbers online.

While she is not asking people to feel sorry for health inspectors, Allen is urging people to be more kind to each other. 

"A lot of us have family members who aren't working. We have kids who are at home from school," she said. 

"All of our stories may be different, but we're all in it together. And, yeah, let's just be kind to one another."