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Demonstrators gather at an anti-mask rally in Calgary, on Dec. 12, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Calgary’s police department says it will take a tougher approach to anti-lockdown protests, which have grown larger in recent weeks in the face of stricter COVID-19 restrictions, by targeting not only organizers but also participants with fines.

The city has seen rallies opposing public-health orders for months but a new round of strict measures including the closing of many businesses and a ban on all gatherings has led to bigger and more frequent protests.

The events have been condemned by Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the city’s police chief and Premier Jason Kenney, who urged the protesters to stop and called it irresponsible to gather in large numbers in the middle of the pandemic.

A rally this past Saturday involved hundreds of unmasked people snaking through the city’s downtown. Protesters carried signs opposing masks and lockdowns but also highlighting a laundry list of unrelated grievances and conspiracy theories. Organizers are planning another rally this weekend and there have also been similar rallies at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton and elsewhere in the province.

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Calgary police issued tickets earlier this month to three people who the force described as organizers, handing each a $1,200 fine for violating a public-health order and a $50 ticket for failing to wear a mask. One also received a fine for holding an event without a permit.

Those tickets were handed out several days after the rally.

“We’re looking at expanding it and not just looking at the organizers,” Superintendent Ryan Ayliffe said in an interview. “We’re just trying to, like everybody else, learn ways to do that while keeping the peace and maintaining officer and public safety.”

Supt. Ayliffe said it’s risky, both to the public and officers, to enforce those orders during a protest involving such a large crowd. Instead, he said officers focus on managing the crowd and collecting evidence with an eye to issuing fines later.

“In the moment, when we have a large crowd like that, we don’t have a lot of options,” he said.

The current public-health orders carry penalties of up to $1,200, though for serious offences courts can increase those penalties to $100,000. Supt. Ayliffe said the options are “scalable” and repeat offenders could be arrested.

The City of Calgary said in a statement Thursday that three tickets were issued in the past week related to anti-lockdown protests and it also expected to hand out additional fines related to last weekend’s rally.

There have been 40 tickets issued under the city’s mandatory mask bylaw since Aug. 1 and 25 tickets related to the provincial Public Health Act since Nov. 25.

Mr. Kenney said he wants the protests to stop but he’s also not about to tell the police how to enforce the law.

“What I wanted to see is to stop this, because any time a large number of people get together in close quarters, especially when they’re not taking any precautions like physical distancing or face coverings, there’s a risk of transmission,” the Premier said in a recent interview.

“I trust the judgment of the police about how to do this in the right way. … I think it’s irresponsible what people are doing, but I, for one, am not keen to see water cannons brought out in front of our city halls.”

Edmonton police referred questions about rallies in that city to the Alberta Sheriffs Branch, which is in charge of security at the legislature grounds, where the protests have been occurring. The sheriffs office referred questions to the Justice Ministry, which issued a statement that said it does not direct enforcement decisions of law enforcement.

The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, said she understands people are frustrated and going through something that she compared to the stages of grief.

“The problem is, of course, when people are disregarding the evidence,” she said on Thursday.

“What I would say to people who are engaging in those activities is it’s not just that they are accepting risk for themselves. They’re actually engaging in things that are risky for the people around them and for their communities.”

She noted that the province put out guidance for safe public demonstrations, including ensuring physical distancing and masking – neither of which were apparent during Saturday’s event in Calgary. That document was produced in September before the recent prohibitions on gatherings.

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