No arrests, few fines under Canada's federal quarantine laws, says public health agency

Out of the more than two million people who crossed the border since Canada implemented strict quarantine laws, no one has been arrested and just a handful have been fined for breaking the two-week isolation rule.

Thousands of people still flying into Canada during COVID-19 restrictions

People leave the terminal after arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Out of the more than two million people who crossed the border into Canada since this country implemented strict quarantine laws, no one has been arrested and just a handful have been fined for breaking the two-week isolation rule — figures the Public Health Agency of Canada says show the current strategy is working.

While international travel has plummeted during the novel coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people have driven or flown into Canada since the start of the crisis.

Most people who cross into Canada have to self-isolate for 14 days, whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or not. That order came into effect in late March when global cases of COVID-19 were climbing rapidly; it was extended late last month. 

If a border agent suspects that a returning traveller is not going to comply with the rules, they flag the Public Health Agency of Canada, which then asks police to follow up. During the pandemic, the RCMP has been running a national operations centre which acts as a dispatch centre for all police agencies in Canada, referring follow-up calls to local police.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says that as of July 9, it had sent the RCMP 21,422 referrals — but only a small minority required a physical police check. Similar numbers were first reported by CTV News.

The number of referrals has grown since May, when PHAC sent 2,198 referrals to police.

No arrests have resulted from PHAC-requested physical verifications and nine tickets have been reported for offences under the Quarantine Act, said PHAC spokesperson Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge.

"Our measures are not intended to be punitive," Legault-Thivierge said in an email to CBC News.

"We have found that Canadians are responsive to their obligations and dedicated to protecting public health."

The RCMP, which policies regions in eight provinces and all three territories, has issued six of those fines, which ranged from $400 to $1,000.

"Since these are fines and not charges, no additional details are available," said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival.

The Ontario Provincial Police said it has issued two tickets in the province's northeast region.

'It's working well': Njoo

Legault-Thivierge cautioned the federal agency's figures could be lower than the real numbers — since local police might not always report their results back up the chain, or might choose to charge someone under a local bylaw or provincial legislation instead of the federal act.

"That said, how effective the measures are cannot be judged by how many tickets are issued. Evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach is the fact that travel-introduced cases have dropped to a small number, suggesting a high level of compliance of travellers," he said.

"As we look to the future and we think of increasing travel volumes, we will need to be vigilant in our approach."

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) refused to provide stats on how many travellers crossing into Canada have been subjected to the Quarantine Act.

According to a tally of the weekly statistics the CBSA puts out, more than 2.4 million people have crossed the border into Canada since the end of March. Most of them entered the country through a land crossing. It's not clear how many crossed for essential work, which would make them exempt under the Act.

The Canada-U.S. border has been closed to non-essential travel since March. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"As you can imagine, it is very time-consuming and uses up a lot of resources to compile stats, so what we've committed to is providing the weekly national traveller stats," said CBSA spokesperson Ashley Lemire in an email to CBC. 

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief medical officer of health, said he believes the monitoring system is working so far.

"From the data and evidence today, it's working well," he said Tuesday during a routine health briefing in Ottawa.

"I'm not aware personally that there's been a big increase in cases related to travel, people who have crossed the border and then developed COVID-19 because of an infection they've brought across the border."

Sources say border deal extended 

Senior government officials, speaking on background, have said the arrangement limiting access at the Canada- U.S border to essential travel only will be rolled over for another 30 days.

The agreement, which has to be reviewed each month, was set to expire on July 21. 

Canadian government officials say they expect the border to stay closed for the foreseeable future, despite calls from U.S. members of Congress to consider a phased plan for reopening.

Outside of its deal with the U.S. administration, Canada closed off most international travel back in March with some exceptions, including one for temporary foreign workers.

The federal government tweaked the quarantine measures in April to state that Canadians returning home from abroad who don't have credible plans to self-isolate will be forced to stay at a quarantine facility, such as a hotel.

The public health agency said that as of Monday, 1,690 travellers have been housed at one of their sites. The costs have not been fully invoiced yet, said Legault-Thivierge, adding the agency is tracking all incurred costs.

With files from Philip Ling

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