Cross Country Checkup

Enforcing pandemic rules can slow COVID-19 spread, but experts say limits are needed

As COVID-19 cases spike in some regions, public health officials say more needs to be done to ensure people are complying with health measures meant to slow the spread of the virus, but experts say the role of police should be examined.

‘You can't enforce your way out of a pandemic,’ says head of civil liberties group

Canadian Civil Liberties Association head Michael Bryant says that police should first and foremost be tasked with educating pandemic rule-breakers, not issuing fines. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Michael Bryant, head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, wants governments to ask two questions before implementing COVID-19-related restrictions: Are they science-based and necessary, and are they proportionate when it comes to Canadians' constitutional rights?

Two provincial governments once again tightened pandemic restrictions this month, with Quebec implementing a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., and Ontario declaring a second state of emergency since the pandemic began and issuing a stay-at-home order.

Skirting the public health restrictions in those two provinces, and others, can result in a fine from police or bylaw officers — an approach Bryant takes issue with.

"You can't enforce your way out of a pandemic," said Bryant in an interview with Cross Country Checkup. "But even if you do, you don't need to. It doesn't actually have the impact."

As COVID-19 cases spike in some regions, public health officials say more needs to be done to ensure people are complying with health measures meant to slow the spread of the virus. During a press conference on Tuesday, Ontario's Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe called for stricter enforcement of pandemic rules.

A woman is handed a fine by police during an anti-lockdown demonstration in Montreal. While some public health officials are calling on stronger enforcement of people flouting public health restrictions, experts say that fines should come as a last resort. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But Bryant says enforcement can too often be heavy handed.

"We've had reports of [Quebec police] pulling over vehicles during the curfew and asking for identification and then seeking to search the contents of the vehicle," he said.

"That is a violation of people's constitutional rights, but is done under the cover of a public health emergency."

One Montreal woman told CBC News that during a curfew-related enforcement stop, police searched her lunch bag after she provided proof that she was an essential worker. Police in that province issued a handful of tickets to anti-curfew protestors last week after the curfew came into effect.

Rules can't be 'wishy-washy'

Andre Picard, a health columnist for the Globe and Mail, agrees that ticketing people for pandemic-related infractions should be a "last resort," but argues that fines are among the only enforcement options available.

Enforcing restrictions also means that the messaging around them must be crystal clear.

"It's hard to enforce rules that are wishy-washy, and I think that's always been our biggest problem," Picard said.

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Infectious disease physicians answer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including whether curfews are effective at reducing cases, where patients are getting infected and how concerned people should be about variants. 6:00

Picard pointed to parts of Australia as an example of how governments can make restrictions clear. "The rule was you can't leave your home within five kilometres more than once a day.... That doesn't leave much room for manoeuvre," he said referring to restrictions in the city of Melbourne.

Since announcing the stay-at-home order in Ontario, government officials have faced criticism for handing too much discretionary power over COVID-19 violations to police amid unclear rules. 

Bryant says that marginalized people are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19-related law enforcement, a concern echoed by Ontario NDP MPP Laura Mae Lindo.

"It's the police discretion, that's the language that they've used and that is actually how one opens up a huge pathway to racial discrimination. You've got to remove the subjectivity of that interaction," she told Checkup. 

Law enforcement officials in Ontario have said that the order does not give officers the authority to enter homes, pull over drivers or stop pedestrians, however.

Get public on board with rules

Citing guidance from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Bryant says that when police are tasked with enforcing lockdown restrictions, their primary role should be educating rule breakers, rather than fining them.

It's an approach taken by the City of Winnipeg last spring that deployed "community service ambassadors" in parks to educate people about COVID-19 guidelines. Only when they refused compliance were bylaw officers called in, with the power to issue more severe penalties.

Policing Ontario's new lockdown order will hurt racialized communities, doctor says

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Advocates worry police will come down hard on already vulnerable communities, doing more damage than helping the cause. 'We cannot police our way out of this pandemic,' palliative physician Dr. Naheed Dosani said. 7:08

Another approach, says Picard, is to push for greater public support of COVID-19 rules.

"If people believe in the rules, it's easier to enforce them because people don't break them," he said.

But a tough approach, like the enforcement of curfews in Quebec, may be necessary to stem the rise of coronavirus cases in Canada.

"You have to be really tough at the beginning to send the message you're not fooling around, and I don't think we've ever gotten this [in Ontario]," Picard said. 

"I think you're getting that message in Quebec."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Sonya Hartwig and Steve Howard.