The Ontario Provincial Police said it's been receiving "tons" of complaints about people not self-isolating after returning from abroad, with the force now expecting even more after the federal government made this mandatory.
But just because the federal government is ordering travellers to self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in Canada doesn't mean that police forces are the first point of contact for those who choose to violate the order.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu told the Canadian Senate Wednesday that the government would be enacting this new order for all travellers "with the exception of essential workers" under the federal Quarantine Act starting at midnight.
"This new measure will provide the clarity for those re-entering the country about the essential need to self-isolate," Hajdu said.
Now police forces and regional health officials are trying to figure out what their role is when it comes to enforcement — with Canada's top doctor suggesting people call their local health officials to report a complaint, but Ontario's lead doctor saying he hasn't yet asked people to do this.
"The federal Quarantine Act doesn’t give police any new powers," said OPP Staff Sgt. and spokesperson Carolle Dionne. "So basically OPP or police (in a) jurisdiction will assist with the request from those designated as screening or quarantine officers under the terms of the act."
The act says a "peace officer may, at the request of a screening officer or quarantine officer, arrest without a warrant and bring to a quarantine officer any traveller who the peace officer has reasonable grounds to believe has refused to be isolated or refuses to comply with a measure." Peace officers include police officers, constables, or officers and non-commissioned members of the Canadian Forces, according to the Criminal Code.
"Once they’ve identified that subject is not being compliant and they need help, because even if they go to speak with them, they’re still not compliant and they need to be arrested, then they would connect with the police jurisdiction," said Dionne.
She said they're working with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) on messaging for both members of the force and the public to clarify what enforcement of the federal government's order would look like and how this is different from other situations.
"When you even say to members of the public that it’s enforceable, they automatically think police, and they don’t differentiate between the peace officer or the quarantine officer and the screening officer," she said.
When it comes to members of the force, it's about "letting our officers, especially our frontline officers...know that they may be required, they may get a call for an assist in this regard," Dionne said, adding that this is important because the Quarantine Act is not something members deal with on a regular basis.
She noted there are other considerations that come into play if OPP members were to assist with any situations related to non-compliance under the Quarantine Act.
Dionne said officers have access to personal protective equipment to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and their exposure, but it's not always required where social distancing and avoiding close contact with people who are sick can work. Also the provincial communications centre has been going through a screening process with complainants, especially in non-emergency situations, so officers can prepare before responding, she added.
"But in this situation, if we’re required to assist with a Quarantine Act enforcement, we need to go in there thinking that there’s a great probability, even if it’s not the case, that that person may be infected with COVID-19," Dionne said. "That means we would have to really consider using our personal protective equipment to respond to those calls."
This could include wearing face masks and gloves, but also ensuring an area is properly disinfected so "when you’re ready to go to the next call, it’s not a matter of transmission, so you’re not spreading the virus elsewhere."
When it comes to the complaints, Dionne said right now the force's response is "reactive" and more about educating people.
"(Our members are) going to remind those that are out and about if they receive a complaint, they should do self-isolation," she said. "We may not even go to that person to educate them, it all depends because we’re getting many many calls and we wouldn’t be able to manage all of those to go one-by-one."
Cst. Akhil Mooken, a spokesperson for Peel Regional Police, said they're waiting on information about how municipal forces "may be called upon to enforce that."
A federal official who spoke with QP Briefing on background said the Public Health Agency of Canada would take the lead on enforcement through its quarantine service, which has quarantine officers stationed across the country, but would also work in collaboration with provincial and local health authorities where required. The Quarantine Act allows the health minister to designate medical or other health-care practitioners as quarantine officers.
These officers would do "spot checks," which would involve contacting or visiting recent travellers to ensure they are self-isolating.
The official said while he hoped police would not need to get involved, the quarantine service has the option of calling the police if someone isn't co-operating.
Even though the possibility of setting up a "hotline" to report those not complying has been floated, the official said they're not looking at establishing one right now.
Earlier in the day Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, said the federal government would work with local public health authorities if people are not following orders. Asked who people should contact if they have concerns or if they know someone isn't following orders, Tam suggested local health authorities.
"If there are potential violations, we’re working with local public health and some of the easiest contacts of course people can have is with local public health authorities, but we work very closely with them to investigate anyone who may be violating," she said. "We are of course rapidly implementing all this, we will adjust and change our strategy as needed, but it’s really a collaborative response with local levels."
But when asked if he recommends people do that, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said he hasn't "put out any edict yet to tell people to call local public health" because right now they are busy dealing with case and contact management.
"I can't say that I've agreed to that yet. But again, we only heard about their rollout this afternoon, and more discussions are required," he said. "Our special advisory committee was on this afternoon outlining some of the details of how they thought they're going to implement that, especially from the federal authority," Williams said. "They had mostly function in there related to their officers such as peace officers and border guards as well as RCMP, and they didn't have any direct requests to have provincial responsibilities outlined yet."
Asked whether people should call police instead, Williams said it becomes a jurisdiction issue.
"I'd say the province we haven't made a decision yet how we might undertake to do that in, in conjunction with the federal order," he said.
Williams said he hopes that when people come back to Canada, they will want to follow the order in "the Canadian way and that means civil responsibility and take it seriously."
"I'm not sure we're out there to spy on everybody," he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified his government's decision on Thursday morning saying it was "in response to the fact that too many travellers are still not self-isolating upon returning to Canada."
"Some people have not been taking this seriously, they’re stopping by the grocery store on the way home from the airport, they’re getting together with friends after being away for March Break," Trudeau said. "This kind of conduct is not just disappointing, it’s dangerous."
Premier Doug Ford has echoed Trudeau's remarks in recent days, stressing on March 23 that people need to self-isolate after travelling.
"I can’t stress it enough, it’s unacceptable. If you’re coming from an airport, don’t, I repeat, do not stop at a store, go directly home and self-isolate for 14 days," Ford said.
Asked why he wasn't ordering Ontarians to stay at home, Ford said he couldn't monitor 14.5 million people.
Meanwhile, Trudeau said public health officials would be following up in "many cases to ensure that people are following these rules" and that enforcement would be done "in various ways by our police and enforcement officers."
He also noted that failing to comply with the order could lead to penalties such as a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months. Additionally, a fine of up to $1 million and/or a prison term of up to three years could also apply to those causing "a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person while willfully or recklessly contravening this act."
Hajdu said those showing symptoms of COVID-19 after reaching Canada would not be allowed to use public transportation to get to their home or wherever they are isolating and that in those cases, the government could assist those individuals.
-With files from Jessica Smith Cross