After facing criticism for what was viewed as weak and inconsistent enforcement of health restrictions, Alberta has moved with new vigour to crack down with three high-profile arrests over the weekend.
The move was made at a critical point in the pandemic for the province. Alberta has the highest infection rate on the continent, and the total COVID-19 case number in the province has surpassed 25,000. In-class learning for children in kindergarten to Grade 6 was shut down for two weeks as of Friday, following older students who went to remote learning last month. Restaurant patios, along with hair and nail salons, must close as of Sunday night.
The new approach to enforcement led to the weekend arrest of two Calgary church leaders who have vocally opposed and contravened health restrictions. Restaurant and gas station owner Chris Scott, whose Whistle Stop Cafe has become a symbol of small-business anti-restrictions movements in rural parts of the province, was also arrested on Saturday.
Premier Jason Kenney has long resisted and thrown doubt on the efficacy of exacting health restrictions. This week he said “broad public buy-in to the restrictions” is what is needed.
Past health restrictions have led to public splits in the governing United Conservative Party. One-quarter of government MLAs from his party banded together last month to issue a letter expressing their opposition to health restrictions (but they haven’t made any kind of similar joint proclamation in recent days).
At the same time, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and others have asked why enforcement hasn’t been stronger when “anti-lockdown” groups gather in large numbers in public spaces, without masks, in violation of health measures. Earlier this month, he had complained that fines are being thrown out when they hit the courts. The issue of enforcement became especially intense for the UCP government at the beginning of the month, when large crowds gathered for a weekend rodeo held in protest of COVID-19 restrictions, where it didn’t appear either attendees or organizers faced any fines.
Following that, provincial Justice Minister Kaycee Madu announced the doubling of fines for Public Health Act violations, and a new protocol to allow for better co-ordination between agencies in responding to repeat offenders. He also promised a more proactive response.
A day later, the province’s central health authority, Alberta Health Services, obtained a Court of Queen’s Bench order in advance of planned protests and demonstrations.
Calgary police used the order to arrest Artur Pawlowski and Dawid Pawlowski, church leaders who have a history of publicly challenging health restrictions. A widely viewed video shows the two brothers being taken into custody on Saturday. Police said they acknowledged the injunction, but chose to ignore requirements for physical distancing, mask-wearing and reduced capacity limits for their church attendees.
“It is important to understand that law enforcement recognizes people’s desire to participate in faith-based gatherings as well as the right to protest,” Calgary police said in a statement. “However, as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, we all must comply with public-health orders in order to ensure everyone’s safety and well-being.”
At the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, the RCMP deemed an outdoor event as an illegal public gathering, and issued tickets under the Public Heath Act, and arrested Mr. Scott under the provision of the Court of Queen’s Bench order.
Months of mixed-messaging and what some Albertans perceived as politically motivated decision-making have set the Kenney government back in delivering a stronger message in its latest restrictions, said Mount Royal University policy studies professor Lori Williams.
Still, Prof. Williams said any government has to walk a fine balance between strong enforcement of health restrictions and bringing more attention to the figures that lead movements against the measures.
“Some of these people are going to appeal to the relative minority of Albertans who really oppose the lockdowns, or even those who question it.”
On Sunday, Derek Fildebrandt, publisher of the right-wing news site the Western Standard, and a former Wildrose MLA, said on social media he will continue to keep his Calgary office open, no matter the rules that ask everyone to work at home if they can.
“I take COVID seriously,” Mr. Fildebrandt said in an interview Sunday. “But I believe everyone should make their own choices based on their own risk tolerance.”
He rejected the idea that health restrictions were put in place for the greater good. “I don’t believe it’s in the common good to bankrupt people, destroy businesses, and destroy livelihoods.”
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