No, someone wasn't fined for sharing a car in Yellowknife during the pandemic

Days after the N.W.T. implemented a total ban on indoor gatherings, rumours circulated that two people who didn't live together shared a car in Yellowknife, and were slapped with $5,500 in fines after a "random police check." That's not true, say officials.

Rumours circulated about what would be the 1st N.W.T. fine for breaking public health orders

An officer conducts a roadside check just outside of Enterprise, N.W.T., on Highway 1 in March. Rumours circulated over the weekend that officers had fined a driver for travelling with a passenger not from the same household. Officials say that's false. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Officials confirmed Wednesday that a rumour two Yellowknifers had received thousands of dollars in fines for sharing a vehicle is false — and experts say this kind of misinformation could become more common as governments take new measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Days after the N.W.T. implemented a total ban on indoor gatherings, rumours circulated that someone had been caught in the net: two people who didn't live together shared a car in Yellowknife, and were slapped with $5,500 in fines after a "random police check."

But days later, both territorial and municipal government officials and police denied issuing the fine.

"We have not handed out any fines to this [effect] yet," wrote a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services in an email. That department oversees the COVID-19 task force that enforces public health orders. "It was not done by our Compliance and Enforcement task force."

"Yellowknife RCMP did not issue any fines over the [Easter] weekend … regarding … public health orders," a spokesperson for the police force wrote.

A spokesperson for the City of Yellowknife said bylaw officers weren't involved, either.

When you have a chaotic situation, rumours are going to circulate.- Robyn Caplan, misinformation researcher

It turns out, the content of those rumours was not only false — it was impossible.

"Other authorities have the ability to stop traffic," wrote the N.W.T. government spokesperson, but "public health officers do not have that authorization."

"The enforcement of … public health orders regarding COVID-19 is with the [territorial government]," the RCMP spokesperson wrote. The city's spokesperson said the exact same.

In short, the people with the authority to stop traffic can't issue a fine for breaking public health orders — and the people who can issue a fine, can't stop traffic.

So who can fine you for this?

That doesn't mean driving with someone from outside of your household is allowed. A FAQ from the territorial government says "cars are being treated as though they are indoors," which means non-essential gatherings of people from different households "could be fined."

Under the Public Health Act, the territory can lay fines of up to $10,000 and six months in jail for a first offence in violating a public health order.

But the government's FAQ also suggests there are a number of exceptions, which may make the order difficult to enforce.

"The main purpose of the order is … not to shut down anyone's lives or inconvenience people who may depend on others," it reads. "We're not going to write you a ticket for helping your family or friends out."

In an email to CBC, the N.W.T. government spokesperson did say that if there was a pressing public health concern, the Health Department could co-ordinate with RCMP to levy a fine against drivers — but that definitely didn't happen in this case.

In a press conference Wednesday, the territory's chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola said no one would be fined for being in a car.

"We are not going to give you a ticket for driving your friend to get groceries, or your mom to a medical appointment," Kandola said. "We understand some shared car rides are essential, you are not at risk for being ticketed for these activities." 

Rumours reveal issues with messaging: experts

The organizations' responses reveal the complications over enforcement that make rumours of the territory's first fine for breaching a public health order so shareable.

Gordon Pennycook is an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Despite a tip line fielding hundreds of complaints and public announcements of "beefed up" enforcement, no fines have yet been laid by territorial health officials. That's creating some confusion about whether these new orders will be enforced.

"When you have a chaotic situation, rumours are going to circulate," said Robyn Caplan, a researcher for misinformation research group Data & Society.

"You have a situation where you have a lack of information, and this story seems to … [tell] you what the consequences are."

The story also ticks all the boxes for those users who have been crying out in social media comment sections for more stringent enforcement, and fines for everyone from partygoers to roaming reality TV stars.

"The stuff that tends to go most viral is the stuff that everybody can find something agreeable in ... or the stuff that provokes the most outrage," said Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural sciences at the University of Regina.

Pennycook said it's possible some of those responding to the story are "a little bit tired of being told what to do," and find this story to be evidence of overreach by the government.

"I think we're starting to see the beginnings of fatigue … [and] we're going to see more and more of this sort of thing, unfortunately."


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