Schools and businesses reopening in Quebec but police still issuing $1K fines for gathering

Quebecers are only allowed to be within two metres of people they live with and, while some public health restrictions are being scaled back, tickets are still being issued to those who gather in groups of two or more.

Hundreds of COVID-19 lockdown violators have been ticketed in Montreal while city's crime rate plummets

A Montreal police spokesperson says the most common violation is gathering in private dwellings, but groups have been ticketed in parks as well. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The sun is expected to shine on southern Quebec Saturday, but that doesn't mean citizens can fire up their barbecue and invite neighbours over for some backyard burgers.

Be it shooting hoops at the local park or chatting around a picnic table, get-togethers are still banned and police can still dole out hefty fines for gathering in groups of two or more as the province's declaration of a public health emergency has been extended to May 6. 

This might come as a surprise to those who tuned into Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault's news briefing on Wednesday when she said, "when we look at the decree, what we say is: avoid gathering as much as possible."

She said people talking outside at a safe distance is acceptable and Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda chimed in to say transmission of COVID-19 is less likely if citizens stay two metres apart while chatting outdoors. 

Now elementary schools and most businesses are reopening in the coming days, making it appear as though the strict rules are behind us. But police have not been told to stop issuing infractions.

And the cost of getting caught in a group is no drop in the bucket.

The cost of hanging out with friends is high

Since the public health emergency was declared in March, police across the province have had the power to serve a notice of infraction for gathering in groups of two or more. Quebec prosecutors could then set the fine as high as $6,000.

By April 4, police were authorized to use their own judgment — issuing tickets of $1,000. With fees, that comes out to more than $1,500. For minors, the fine can't top $500.

The rule is, if you don't live with that person, you're not supposed to be in close proximity of them. That hasn't changed, but some people were left confused by the security minister's comments on Wednesday, said Longueuil police spokesperson Const. Mélanie Mercille.

"We apply the public health law," she said.

"I know that Saturday is going to be a beautiful day, so people will want to go outside and go see their friends or family. But we ask people to be strong and to follow the government's instructions."

A Montreal police spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that officers will continue enforcing public health regulations until the provincial health authority says otherwise. (Martin Thibault/Radio-Canada)

Thousands of tickets issued

Longueuil police have been giving warnings first. If people don't comply, they get a ticket. So far, there have been 77 fines issued for gathering, Mercille said, and two non-essential business owners were ticketed for refusing to close.

In Montreal, police aren't giving warnings. SPVM spokesperson Insp. André Durocher said police have issued more than 1,800 tickets or notices.

"The most common situation, roughly 50 per cent, is for people who gather in the same dwelling," he said, noting these gatherings are broken up after neighbours complain.

People are also ticketed for grouping in public places, he said, or they're written up for running a non-essential business.

Durocher said the SPVM is not collecting precise data on the types of offences or who they are being issued to, but overall, the number of violations appears to be going down.

With a reduction in traffic during the economic lockdown, an SPVM spokesperson says it appears there have been fewer collisions but studies still need to be done. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

There were 396 violations between April 20 and 27. That's small compared to the size of the population, he said, and shows "people are getting the message."

As for provincial police, SQ spokesperson Sgt. Ann Mathieu says more than 1,500 tickets have been issued as of April 27 for a range of offences and officers will continue cracking down on public health violations as needed.

No matter the weather, she said the provincial police will be out on patrol, enforcing public health restrictions along with all their other duties.

Violation of basic rights or necessary restriction?

While some Canadians are grumbling frustrations online about the public health restrictions, some Americans have launched armed protests in defiance of their state's stay-at-home orders.

However, Montreal human rights lawyer Julius Grey says ticketing people for gathering during a pandemic is on par with forcing people out of their homes during a flood.

Julius Grey says enforcing temporary restrictions due to an epidemic is not a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (CBC)

"Civil liberties are very important, but remember the charter says there can be necessary limits in a free and democratic society," he said.

These measures are put in place for safety reasons, he explained, and that's not worrisome.

"What worries me is the means of investigation," Grey said. "You know, following you on your phone, videos everywhere. It worries me not for COVID. I think they're properly used for COVID. What worries me is what happens afterward."

Law enforcement gets used to having extra powers to monitor the population, he said, but the question is "will they, after the COVID crisis, use these special powers? I think it would be very dangerous if they did."

Drop in Montreal crime rate

Some good news coming out of the pandemic is Montreal's crime rate has dropped some 30 per cent over the last two months, Durocher said. 

The number of home break-ins and acts of simple theft have plummeted dramatically in Montreal, but there has been a slight uptick in business break-ins, he said.

There are still studies to do, he said, but it appears the dramatic reduction in traffic has led to far fewer collisions and, with the bars closed, there haven't been any fights to break up.

"There's less traffic," he said. "There's less everything. That's what happens."

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