If you saw the photos of beach parties in Vancouver recently, you know that compliance — getting people to follow the current public-health guidelines — is one of the biggest challenges in the fight against COVID-19. Part of it is people blatantly disobeying, but a lot of it is plain old confusion. Because how is it even possible to “go home and stay home” and get some exercise outside? Are we supposed to call the cops if we see someone break a rule? And just how serious are new enforcement measures: Can I get arrested for breaking quarantine, or even just for going outside?
The answers to these and all your burning “but what am I even allowed to do now?” questions below.
Can I get arrested for breaking quarantine?
We can talk later about how utterly insane this question would have seemed just a few weeks ago. For now, the answer is yes. As of midnight on Thursday, the federal government invoked the Quarantine Act, making a 14-day self-isolation for travellers returning from other countries mandatory rather than strongly recommended. This is, we can assume, an example of the “more stringent measures” that Justin Trudeau has been threatening during his daily press conference. (Anyone else kind of digging the stern dad vibe?) Though the reality is that even before this latest escalation, provincial police across Canada have had extended powers to make arrests in connection with the current health crisis.
It’s already happened in Quebec City, where a woman who tested positive for COVID-19 was arrested last Friday after venturing outside of her home against the instructions of the regional health authority. In Newfoundland, a woman was arrested on Tuesday (and spent the night in jail) after arriving from a different province and refusing to stay inside. “Stay in your bubble,” Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Ndjoo said at today’s daily press briefing. “[Quarantine] means no bike rides no walking around in the neighbourhood. I hope Canadians understand that.”
Does the mandatory quarantine order only apply to international travellers?
No. A lot of the awareness-raising efforts, including straight-to-phone emergency alerts have been targeting Canadians returning home from other countries because, up until recently, they were responsible for most of the new cases (about 90%). But globetrotters aren’t the only ones being told — not asked — to isolate for two weeks, with rising instances of “community spread” (meaning the person who tests positive has no known links to a travellers or a previously confirmed case). Anyone who has tested positive for the virus or who has COVID-19 like symptoms (dry cough, fever, shortness of breath) is also being told — again, not asked — to isolate for two weeks.
I’ve heard the police are handing out tickets. Is that true? And for what?
True? Yes. For now cops in various provinces are issuing a lot more warnings than tickets, but they do have special powers to fine and detain. Not just for people who break quarantine orders, but for anyone endangering public safety. Criminal charges can also be laid for broader instances of reckless behaviour, BTW. In Hamilton, ON, police recently pressed charges against a McDonald's worker who faked a sick note for COVID-19, causing the entire restaurant to shut down. In New Brunswick, a man was charged with assault for “purposefully coughing” in someone’s face. Fines currently range from $750 to $10 million.
What??? What do I have to do to get a $10-million ticket?
Unless you are a corporation, that particular fine doesn’t apply. Individual fines appear to be in the $750 to $2,000 range. That could be for going out when you should be in quarantine, gathering in numbers that exceed the recommended number in each province or doing anything to obstruct safety efforts.
So, could I get in trouble for throwing a party?
Yes. Earlier this week a police officer tweeted about busting up a bender in Regina, where the max gathering number is fewer than five people (Ontario has the same rule). Provinces like B.C. have banned groups of 50 or more, but that doesn’t mean you should invite your 40 closest friends over for a COVID-19 themed kegger or even gather in smaller groups for a dinner party. At least not physically. If you want to party with your friends (because all of this alone time is definitely not easy), make a date on one of the many video chat platforms where people have been doing everything — yes, everything — they normally do in person.
For people who aren’t in self-isolation? Can we still go outside to exercise? Take kids to the park?
Depending on where you live, the parks may not be an option. Last week, Mayor John Tory shut down Toronto playgrounds and dog parks because people were continuing to gather there. Then over the weekend he announced a ticketing blitz after people failed to get with the program. It's a good example of why we all need to listen to the message our leaders are sending right now: This is a good example of the threat we’ve been hearing from leaders across the board, which is basically: If you don’t smarten up, this is going to get worse. In France, people need permission slips to step out of their houses, and while we’re not there yet, the government is big on saying that “nothing” is off the table when it comes to protecting Canadians (from COVID-19 and from ourselves).
As for getting outside (to go for a run, so that your kids can get some fresh air), the message is a little mixed. On the one hand exercise is a great way to maintain mental health (and combat cabin fever). On the other, staying home “as much as possible” (the recommendation from Trudeau, Toronto Chief Health Officer Eileen de Villa, and many others) doesn’t mean popping out for fresh air whenever you fancy. Toronto Public Health suggests finding ways to break a sweat behind closed doors: “Try free live-streamed classes or use household items as weights.” And if you “must” go outside, do it sparingly and maintain a distance of two metres.
Could I get a ticket for being too close?
Well it’s not like cops are walking around with tape measures (or hockey sticks, which is how far Tory is telling us to stay apart). But hypothetically if a police or health officer asked you to make more room and you refused, that could land you a ticket. (It would also make you a bit of a jerk.)
So should I tattle on neighbours who are leaving home multiple times a day?
If you know for a fact that they have returned from travel, then yes. Many provincial public health departments have asked the gen pop to play whistleblower when it comes to recently returned travellers. Presumably the same goes for anyone posing a significant threat. Say, if someone in your neighbourhood is throwing a party or if your employer is asking people to work in unsafe conditions. That said, law enforcement is extremely busy and isn’t here to get involved in your interpersonal COVID-19 squabbles. Now more than ever, you don’t want to be someone who's wasting their time.