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Coronavirus information
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A man and woman walk along what is a normally a busy Place Jacques-Cartier in Montreal's Old town, Saturday, March 21, 2020, as COVID-19 cases rise in Canada and around the world.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Governments across Canada are turning to fines and threats of arrests in the face of concerns that not everyone is getting the message about self-isolating and social distancing to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections.

The need to ensure people most at risk of passing along COVID-19 heed the direction from public-health officials is becoming more urgent as Canadians are repatriated from locations around the world. All have been told to isolate at home for 14 days, which is the incubation period for the novel coronavirus at the root of the pandemic, but for the most part officials have relied on people taking those steps voluntarily.

But there are signs that patience is running out. Saskatchewan has threatened returning travellers with $2,000 fines if they don’t self-isolate for 14 days. The government used the emergency-broadcast system to send that message to cellphones. In Quebec City, police arrested a woman who was infected with the virus and was walking around outside.

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Alberta is also promising that fines are coming, while the federal government and B.C. have warned that more strict measures, including penalties, could be used if needed.

China imposed significant restrictions on public life far beyond what has been used so far in Canada, and areas of the United States, including the entire state of California and New York City, are essentially under lockdown. The lack of swift measures in Italy has been blamed for a crisis that quickly overwhelmed the local health-care system.

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Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu urged Canadians to follow self-isolation measures now to prevent more severe restrictions if the pandemic gets out of control.

“When people are playing loose ... with the rules like this, it does actually put our civil liberties in jeopardy — it makes government have to look at more and more stringent measures to actually contain people in their own homes," she said Saturday.

“Politicians and governments will be pushed to a place to take more and more stringent measures when people violate them and don’t take them seriously.”

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks with Minister of Health Patty Hajdu during a press conference on COVID-19 in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, March 20, 2020.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

She noted that federal and provincial legislation allows for severe penalties if they are needed to protect public health.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is not yet prepared to declare a national emergency, which would allow for more severe restrictions, but he said the option remains on the table.

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said on Friday that self-isolation for returning travellers is not optional.

“This doesn’t mean that you go to the grocery store or go to the drug store or go fill up with gas and then you go home and self-isolate,” said Mr. Moe. “This means you go home. And you stay home now.”

In Quebec City, police arrested a woman on Friday who was infected with the virus and who was walking around outside after being mandated to stay indoors. The arrest was the first time Quebec City’s public health director issued an order to police under emergency powers granted after Premier Francois Legault declared a public health emergency March 14.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s chief medical officer, told reporters Saturday that regional health directors across the province “will have no problem” ordering police to make arrests and ensure people carrying the virus are isolated.

“Starting now, it’s clear that we will restrict people who aren’t respecting the orders,” Dr. Arruda said. “Especially if they have already been advised, contacted, and we have information that they are walking around.”

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, flanked by Horacio Arruda, Quebec director of National Public Health, left, and Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann, responds to reporters questions at his daily news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday, March 21, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Alberta ​plans to empower police to fine people who ignore self-isolation or quarantine requirements beginning next week, said Dr. Marcia Johnson, the province's deputy chief medical officer of health. She said the details, including the size of those fines, are still being worked out.

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“There are some, unfortunately, that don’t always go along with the restrictions,” she said. “To make as much cohesion in society as we can, it is nice to have a mechanism to nudge the reluctant people more towards helping keep all our communities safe.”

Calgary put in place a mandatory self-isolation order last Tuesday but the city’s police force said they didn’t plan to enforce it with penalties, instead comparing it to an evacuation order.

Governments across the country have banned large gatherings and ordered certain types of businesses closed, also warning that violators would be penalized.

Craig Janes, the director of University of Waterloo’s school of public health, said enforcement may be a good idea, as long as the measures aren’t seen as draconian. For example, he said Canadians likely wouldn’t tolerate measures as strict as those used in China.

“It often comes down to what’s tolerable at a community level," he said. “In the same way that we enforce traffic laws so that people stay safe, why not similar measures for enforcing self-isolation or quarantine?”

Dr. Gerald Da Roza, the head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., wrote the province’s chief medical officer urging for more strict social distancing measures in the province. He said anyone who visits a local beach or park can see that some people are not following direction from public-health officials.

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“The only way we’re going to prevent this country from going down the road of Italy or some of the states in the U. S. is to take what seem like very extreme measures,” Dr. Da Roza said in an interview.

“I think a significant portion of the public is going to listen, and I thank them for it. But there is always going to be some segment of the population that is not going to take this seriously unless you institute some sort of penalty.”

Dr. Da Roza said enforcement should be gradual and could begin with police officers or other officials patrolling and warning people who are flagrantly ignoring public-health advice.

B.C.'s health minister, Adrian Dix, said people in the province need to view self-isolation measures for what they are: mandatory orders. He said that comes with enforcement, but neither he nor Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry would say what that could look like.

“We can, if needed,” Dr. Henry said Saturday when asked about fines or other penalties.

“We have provisions to be able to work with peace officers around the province to assist us in that."

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With files from The Canadian Press

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