Delta Mayor George Harvie is asking the province to empower local authorities to enforce public health orders relating to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter, addressed to B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix and dated April 8, says the city needs the ability at the local level to enforce the orders of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to “effectively support” the government in limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“While the majority of people are following Dr. Bonnie Henry’s orders around physical distancing, we are seeing some people who are flouting these directives,” Harvie writes in the letter.
“We have seen the importance of enforcement in cases like the Bikram Yoga studio owner. We also know that golf courses, which were closed under our state of local emergency, are reopening, creating the potential for large crowds that will have difficulty meeting physical distancing requirements. Therefore, we are seeking the ability to enforce the Provincial Health Officer’s orders within an education-first model of compliance.
“Our police and bylaw officers always focus on education and compliance first and use tickets and fines as a last resort. Without this last resort, our work to support your leadership and limit the spread of COVID-19 will quickly lose effectiveness, particularly as good weather encourages more people to gather in groups.”
The city has taken a number steps in the past month to ensure it has the tools to enforce public health orders relating to COVID-19, but the rapidly evolving nature of the situation seems to have made that a difficult goal to accomplish.
On Thursday, March 19, the City of Delta declared a local state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That same day, Delta bylaw inspectors suspended the business licence of Bikram Yoga Delta after the owner refused to voluntarily cancel classes in light of the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.
Operating under the local state of emergency, the city and Mayor Harvie issued a number of orders to support the pandemic response, including ordering the closure of all golf courses, mandating local stores set aside time every day for seniors and others who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 to shop separate from from the general public, and requiring store managers take steps to discourage overbuying of all goods and limit the quantity of “key items” that a single person may purchase in one day.
On Wednesday, March 25, council gave first, second and third reading to amendments to the city’s Emergency Program Bylaw enabling police and bylaw enforcement officers to ticket and fine anyone who isn’t adhering to orders issued by the provincial health officer relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A day later, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth announced a slate of new measures under the provincial state of emergency aimed at co-ordinating pandemic responses province-wide.
As part of the new slate of orders, Farnworth suspended local states of emergency, but also announced municipal bylaw officers and local police would be able to enforce the provincial health officer’s orders relating to business closures and limiting gatherings, including issuing fines of up to $25,000 or jailing offenders.
Mayor Harvie, during a virtual townhall later that morning, said the province’s move served to strengthen the city’s ability to enforce the measures taken by the province and orders issued by Dr. Bonnie Henry to address the ongoing pandemic.
“Any time you’re acting under a provincial regulation versus a local government regulation, there is strength in that,” Harvie said.
“[Our local state of emergency] we always thought would be temporary, but we wanted to get out there and do things very quickly, unlike some of the other cities who have moved a little too slow in my opinion.”
Then, at a special meeting on Friday, March 27, Delta council unanimously approved the amendments to the city’s Emergency Program Bylaw.
Under the amended bylaw, acting contrary to an order, failing to carry out or comply with an order, or interfering with or obstructing any authorized person in carrying out their duties will carry a fine of between $500 and $1,000 per offence.
“The rules around gatherings, restaurant operators, and physical distancing have been made clear by our provincial health officer and these are critical steps we must take to keep our communities safe,” Mayor George Harvie said in a press release issued later that afternoon. “These additional enforcement measures will assist Delta in supporting the province and in dealing with those who continue to refuse to comply.”
Delta’s director of community planning and development, Marcy Sangret, told council during the special meeting that the bylaw amendments were written so as to comply with the new provincial orders issued Thursday morning.
“In the provincial order, as it relates to bylaw enforcement officers, it gives a number of areas where bylaw enforcement officers are to provide assistance in enforcing the provincial order. However, it does say that in providing assistance, bylaw enforcement officers are not authorized to detain people or issue a fine or penalty under the Public Health Act,” Sangret told council.
“One of the reasons we are bringing forward this particular bylaw is to be able to issue fines and penalties under our municipal ticketing authority. And so we believe that we can carry on with this bylaw; we believe that it sends the correct message to the community that the City of Delta is serious about helping the province in enforcing their orders.”
It would seem, however, that the bylaw amendments were not enough for Delta police or bylaw officers to lawfully issue tickets, “last resort” or otherwise, as the city’s authority to do so ended with its local state of emergency.
As for Farnworth’s order enabling police and bylaw officers to enforce public health orders, that didn’t give local authorities the ability to do so on their own initiative either.
On Tuesday, March 31, the province issued a clarification regarding the role of compliance and enforcement officials (C&EOs) in implementing COVID-19 public health orders: “Police officers and C&EOs are not empowered to enforce (i.e. ticket or detain) with respect to public health orders. Their role is to provide assistance only when called upon by a health officer pursuant to section 90 of the Public Health Act.”
The document goes on to state the province has adopted and implemented a “graduated compliance and enforcement approach that generally starts with providing information, education and advice as the first step, with escalating measured enforcement only as required.
A shorter brief issued the same day says bylaw enforcement officers and the like are to serve as the start of the graduated enforcement.
“If this approach is not successful, then referral to a health officer is appropriate.”