The federal government is deploying the Quarantine Act in the fight against COVID-19, imposing mandatory self-isolation rules for any traveller returning to Canada with fines and even jail time for those who break the rules.
The legislation, which went into effect Wednesday, means people coming back to Canada are now legally required to go into self-isolation for 14 days.
Here’s what you need to know about the mandatory quarantine and how it works:
How will a mandatory quarantine be enforced?
As of Thursday morning, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers will start telling all returning Canadians and permanent residents of the new orders and explaining they’re forbidden from making any stops on their way home.
“My officials are working with CBSA right now to ensure that people know that this will be serious and that there will be significant penalties if people violate the quarantine,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Wednesday.
Spot checks will be conducted by the government of Canada to verify compliance, according to Hajdu.
“We are implementing the Quarantine Act so there is no confusion about the need to do so whether you are symptomatic or not,” Hajdu said.
On Thursday, Canada’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said federal health officials will be working closely with their local counterparts to conduct random checkups that could involve phone calls or in-person visits.
Tam said federal officials will “collaborate” with local officials to deal with repeat offenders who violate the quarantine requirement.
“If, for whatever reasons, someone is not complying, we can collaborate with local public health officials,” Tam said. “We can engage police officers if needed… hopefully that won’t happen frequently.”
However, it’s still unclear when and which police agencies will be brought in to deal with people who violate the quarantine requirement.
Generally, federal legislation — such as drug laws— are enforced by municipal police forces, provincial police or RCMP.
Barbara von Tigerstrom, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who researches public health law, said enforcement could be difficult given the volume of people entering Canada.
Between March 14 and 20, roughly one million citizens and permanent residents returned to Canada, according to CBSA statistics.
“Everyone is hoping they won’t have to take enforcement action, or as little as possible,” von Tigerstrom said. “The number of people affected obviously makes it challenging to do the enforcement on the ground.
“And law enforcement, I’m sure, are busy with a lot of other things.”
The move comes after several reports of travellers stopping to pick up groceries or do errands after returning home to Canada. As of Thursday morning, COVID-19 has sickened more than 3,500 in Canada and killed at least 35.
Global News also reported on a number of cases on Wednesday in which travellers said there was little to no screening for COVID-19 at major airports, like Toronto’s Pearson International.
What are the penalties?
Hajdu’s office said in a statement late Wednesday that the maximum penalties include a fine of up to $750,000 and six months in jail.
A person who causes risk of death or serious bodily harm to another person while wilfully or recklessly contravening the Act could also face fines of up to $1-million, imprisonment of up to three years, or both, according to the government.
Some provinces have already made arrests under their own emergency measures.
Police in Quebec and Newfoundland arrested two women who had tested positive for the new coronavirus and violated a quarantine order.
Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia, police now have the power to enforce the province’s Health Protection Act, which bans gatherings of more than five people and allows for fines of up to $1,000 for individuals and $7,500 for business owners.
In Alberta, peace officers and police are now able to issue fines of up to $1,000 to enforce public health orders related to new coronavirus.
How do I get home from the airport?
There was some initial confusion about how travellers were expected to get home once arriving at airports — especially those who don’t live near an airport.
Hajdu said returning travellers would be barred from taking public transit home or to their place of isolation to protect vulnerable people from getting sick. The government later clarified that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) would assist with transportation and accommodation arrangements as needed.
“All travellers that don’t have an opportunity to return in a private vehicle, for example, will be provided transportation to their destination,” Hajdu said.
A health official also said symptomatic travellers will have to isolate in the city of arrival, meaning one of the four cities still accepting international travellers. Individuals required to isolate in the city of arrival will have accommodations and meals provided.
Tam said Thursday that the PHAC has contracted medical transport that can take people to their home depending on the distance.
“The ill passengers may be either be transferred to a federal quarantine site, or if it’s within our medical transportation distance, we will drive them all the way home,”
What exactly is the Quarantine Act?
The Quarantine Act is a piece of legislation bearing the same name that went into effect shortly after Confederation in 1872, according to the federal government.
However, following the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003, the government made changes to the legislation to increase the latitude given to government officials.
LISTEN: Why doctors are pleading for Canadians to self-quarantine:
The legislation gives the federal health minister sweeping powers — from routine screenings at airports to mandatory isolation orders — to stop the spread of communicable diseases either in or out of Canada.
While Canada has not enforced such strong measures, it has the constitutional authority, according to University of Ottawa law professor Martha Jackman.
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Jackman explained that Canadians have the right to mobility as per Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the government can infringe on it if deemed necessary.
“Section 1 of the charter does allow the government to restrict charter rights if it is reasonably and demonstrably justifiable,” she said, noting that in this case, government officials would have to prove it was recommended by medical professionals as a necessary step in curbing COVID-19 cases.
“As long as the decisions really are grounded in legitimate public health concerns then, you know, they would be deemed by court to be justifiable,” she said.
The Quarantine Act was invoked earlier this year when travellers returning to Canada from Wuhan, China and other global hot spots for the novel coronavirus were detained for two weeks at an eastern Ontario military base.
— With files from Global News’ Maham Abedi and the Canadian Press