EDMONTON — Alberta has doubled fines for disobeying public health measures meant to fight COVID-19 and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu is promising a renewed effort to stop public health scofflaws will succeed.
“Enforcement will be done, and Albertans will see it being done,” Madu told a news conference Wednesday.
“It has become clear that there are a small few who refuse to comply with reasonable and legitimate public health orders"
The United Conservative government passed an order in council Wednesday that doubles fines for public health violations to $2,000.
Madu said there is also a new protocol for health officials, police and government to co-ordinate and target repeat individuals and groups that flout the law.
He said he discussed with police chiefs this week what further tools and resources they need to step up enforcement.
Premier Jason Kenney on Tuesday announced stronger measures to reverse soaring COVID-19 cases that threaten to overwhelm hospitals by month’s end and to force doctors to decide which patients get life-saving care.
Kenney’s government has been criticized for being a paper tiger on lawbreakers. In January, it allowed some restaurants to flout dine-in restrictions. GraceLife church, in Spruce Grove, Alta., west of Edmonton, was able to hold Sunday services for months that officials have said ignored rules on masks, capacity limits and physical distancing. Police physically blocked off the church just a month ago.
The enforcement issue made headlines again on this weekend when hundreds of people gathered near Bowden in central Alberta for a pre-advertised maskless "No More Lockdowns" protest rodeo.
Edmonton and Calgary have also seen maskless mass protests against health restrictions.
Action was taken Wednesday against one accused repeat offender. Alberta Health Services announced the Whistle Stop Café in Mirror, Alta., had been physically closed and access barred. The café had been flagged for repeatedly breaking COVID-19 health restrictions by staying open and serving customers.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney’s government set its enforcement policy up for failure from the get-go by stressing education first and enforcement as a last resort.
Referring to the protocol Madu outlined, Notley said: "The fact there is a protocol to tell them to talk to each other is not new. It is a policy dressed up to look like action, but it is not significant, and that’s why we're calling on them to do more."
She criticized the plan to target only repeat offenders: "(That) says to me their plan is to give everybody their first rodeo free, which is in effect what they did with the Bowden rodeo.
"This has to stop because that Bowden rodeo will turn out to be a super-spreader. People will get sick from that rodeo. People will get seriously ill."
Kenney announced tighter rules Tuesday, some of which came in effect Wednesday. Outdoor gatherings, which had been limited to 10 people, are now capped at five. Worship services, which were allowed at 15 per cent capacity, have been reduced to 15 people maximum.
Retailers, which had been open at 15 per cent customer capacity, are restricted to 10 per cent.
On Friday, all kindergarten to Grade 12 students will learn from home. On Sunday, restaurants must close their patios and offer takeout service only. Personal wellness services, including hair salons and barber shops, will have to close.
Indoor social gatherings remain banned. Entertainment venues, including movie theatres and casinos, also remain closed.
As of Wednesday, Alberta had 24,156 active cases of COVID-19, with 666 people in hospital. It has experienced the highest infection rates in North America in recent weeks.
There are almost 1.7 million Albertans who have received at least one dose of vaccine. About one in three adults have had a shot.
Kenney said the vaccination rollout will be expanded drastically, with everyone in the province 12 and older to soon be eligible.
Every Albertan born in 1991 or earlier will be able to book vaccinations starting Friday. On Monday, appointments will be offered to anyone born between 2009 and 1992.
Earlier Wednesday, Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 12.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press