Alberta government implements new strategy to enforce COVID-19 restrictions

Click to play video: 'Alberta tightens COVID-19 rules for at least 3 weeks to prevent looming hospital catastrophe'
Alberta tightens COVID-19 rules for at least 3 weeks to prevent looming hospital catastrophe
WATCH ABOVE: With surging COVID-19 rates threatening to overwhelm Alberta’s health-care system, Premier Jason Kenney announced the province is reintroducing stricter rules on gatherings, businesses and schools not seen since the first wave of the pandemic. Julia Wong explains what is changing and for how long – May 4, 2021

The Alberta government said it is getting tougher on those breaking public health orders brought in amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government said fines will double from $1,000 to $2,000 for those found to be breaking COVID-19 restrictions.

“Action must be taken and action is being taken,” Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Wednesday morning.

“We need concrete action to address the ongoing and escalating threat to public health and the strain on our healthcare system being imposed by those who continue to defy our efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Click to play video: 'Justice minister outlines enforcement measures during COVID-19 health restrictions'
Justice minister outlines enforcement measures during COVID-19 health restrictions
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The province said an amendment will be made to allow for the doubling of the fines to start as soon as possible.

Madu said issuing fines is not enough to deal with non-compliance, so there will also be an increased focus on Alberta Health Services, Occupational Health and Safety, Alberta prosecution service and local police working together to gain compliance and implement consequences against offenders if necessary.

“All of the relevant agencies have agreed to collaborate on being focusing on serious repeat violators of the public health orders, and also to be more proactive,” Premier Jason Kenney said.

Click to play video: 'Kenney imposes new measures: Alberta must ‘prevent disaster from unfolding’ in hospitals'
Kenney imposes new measures: Alberta must ‘prevent disaster from unfolding’ in hospitals

Kenney has repeatedly said one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been Albertans not following measures. On Tuesday, Kenney said he wanted repeat offenders in particular to be targeted.

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“We will not tolerate those who endanger the health of their fellow Albertans while the vast majority of people are doing the right thing,” Kenney said.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said focusing on repeat offenders gives a free pass for Albertans to break the rules the first time.

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“What troubled me about what the premier said is that he said that he wanted there to be greater enforcement of those who are repeat offenders, and what that says to me is that he’s just giving people permission to offend at least once, so you get your first rodeo free,” Notley said.

Click to play video: 'Frustrations over Alberta’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions of pandemic'
Frustrations over Alberta’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions of pandemic

READ MORE: Premier condemns large gathering at weekend rodeo as Alberta sees record number of COVID-19 cases

Last weekend, an “anti-lockdown rodeo,” advertised in advance, was held near Bowden Alta., where hundreds of people attended — blatantly breaking public health orders.

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Madu said local police decided to not deal with the matter during the rodeo, instead gathering intelligence as part of an ongoing investigation.

“I can tell you there is an ongoing investigation with respect to that particular event,” he said. “The laws are there, the tools are there, the resources are there and we must trust those in law enforcement and at Alberta Health Services to whom we have entrusted to enforce and ensure compliance.

Click to play video: 'Too much or too little? Premier Jason Kenney faces political pressure from all sides with new COVID-19 restrictions'
Too much or too little? Premier Jason Kenney faces political pressure from all sides with new COVID-19 restrictions

On Wednesday, Madu responded to speculation that police around the province have been told not to issue fines in large numbers to those breaking public orders.

According to the ministry of justice, 576 tickets were filed with the provincial court in the month of March, but just 12 per cent resulted in a conviction or payment.

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The justice minister said that message has not come from him.

“I have not directed any local law enforcement or police services to not enforce public health orders or to issue tickets,” Madu said.

“I have been clear from Day 1 that it is my expectation that law enforcement and the Crown prosecution service will deploy all the tools available to them to ensure that the public health orders are enforced.”

READ MORE: Lethbridge mayor says Alberta COVID-19 restrictions ‘will drag out if people do not comply’

Kenney said the direction to limit fines could be coming from Crown prosecutors.

“They ultimately are in charge of managing the case load and assessing a chance of successful prosecution,” he said. “We have given the department of justice direction to hire more designated prosecutors to deal with public health offences and if necessary to hire private sector law firms to supplement the workload.”

In the Edmonton zone, which had 6,098 active cases as of Wednesday, Mayor Don Iveson said additional restrictions and enforcement are necessary under the current circumstance.

“The city will continue to enforce, as we have, but now what we need to see is follow through and prosecution and accountability for the tickets that are being issued,” he said.

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“There can be no ambiguity whatsoever with the virus as out of control as it is. That behaviour that jeopardizes our fellow Edmontonians and Albertans and other front-line workers who then have to pickup the pieces has to stop now.”

READ MORE: Health officials close Whistle Stop Café after Alberta restaurant ignores COVID-19 rules for months

On Wednesday morning, AHS closed a café in Mirror, Alta., that repeatedly broke COVID-19 health restrictions by staying open and serving customers.

AHS officials and RCMP physically closed the Whistle Stop Café and prevented access to the building.

AHS said in a news release there had been 413 public complaints about the business since Jan. 1, 2021.

READ MORE: 17 UCP MLAs revolt against Alberta government’s renewed COVID-19 restrictions

There have been UCP MLAs who have opposed the government’s measures to deal with the pandemic. In early April, after Alberta returned to Step 1 of the plan for relaunching the economy due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, 17 United Conservative Party MLAs publicly slammed the move.

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To this point, Kenney has allowed MLAs in his party to publicly oppose his measures with no repercussion. With the announcement of new restrictions on Tuesday, including moving students online and closing patios amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, the premier was asked Wednesday whether he would take action against those who publicly criticize the latest measures.

“I don’t think that a debate undermines the seriousness of this matter; there’s always going to be a debate in a democracy. I don’t find a debate dangerous or threatening,” he said. “There’s always going to be a range of views to COVID-19, but at the end of the day, the government is charged with the responsibility of making the tough decisions.”

Click to play video: 'Kenney pleads with Albertans to ‘come together for the next month’ amid COVID-19 restrictions'
Kenney pleads with Albertans to ‘come together for the next month’ amid COVID-19 restrictions

Notley said the premier should remove those UCP MLAs who oppose restrictions from his caucus.

“If you can’t support keeping Albertans safe then you just can’t sit in government caucus,” she said.

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The restrictions announced Tuesday also include decrease outdoor gathers from 10 people to five people, closing all forms of indoor fitness, lowering customer capacity to 10 per cent at retail services or a minimum or five customers and moving all post secondary education to online learning.

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