The Manitoba government is increasing fines for individuals and businesses that violate public health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fine for individuals more than doubles to $1,296 from $486, while the fine for corporations rises to $5,000 from $2,542. The new fines come into effect immediately.
“It’s our hope these new fines will help limit the spread of this virus,” Premier Brian Pallister said at a news conference Wednesday morning.
“These new fines will help save lives. They will help restart our economy. They will help small businesses get back on their feet.”
With the fine for individuals going up more than the fine for businesses, Pallister said that although there have been irresponsible business owners, “it’s the individual that needs to be accountable for their decisions.”
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin warned last week that penalties might be strengthened.
A recent spike in cases in the Winnipeg region has been caused in part by people going out to social gatherings, sometimes while symptomatic, he said.
“They are putting their health at risk. They are putting the personal and financial health of all Manitobans at risk, as well,” Pallister said.
Among the people calling for increased penalties for violating the orders are small business owners, he said.
“They’re asking for additional levers to make sure that they’re able to keep their businesses safe, their workers safe and their customers safe.”
Earlier this week, the province reversed course on a decision to close Winnipeg-area beverage rooms — licensed establishments connected to a hotel — for two weeks as part of new pandemic restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Asked whether Roussin had approved that decision, Pallister said his government has always listened to feedback from Manitobans throughout the pandemic, as exemplified by the decision to impose lesser restrictions on beverage rooms.
“Dr. Roussin is the one who made the final announcement and the final decision, but I’m accountable for it and I’m happy to be,” Pallister said.
Under the new rules, approximately 15 businesses will be forced to close for the next two weeks, Pallister said.
When asked about the possibility of giving direct support to those businesses, Pallister said no government has enough money to make up for the losses businesses have suffered, but touted the province’s broad-based supports, such as its wage subsidy program, as the most generous in the country.
Wade Salchert, who owns La Roca in downtown Winnipeg, questioned that assessment. His business has to shut down because of the type of liquor licence it has, but he says he is still paying about $2,500 in property taxes and $1,000 in business taxes every month.
“I don’t know what he’s referring to when he says it’s a great program. As of yesterday, we had to furlough 25 staff,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t been supported by the provincial government.”
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the increased penalties are “fine,” but the province needs to go farther to support businesses and workers so they are not forced to choose between losing money or going to work when sick.
“Rather than doing the hard work of trying to fix the problem with testing, or contact tracing, or to put a date on when paid sick leave is going to be implemented or when there’s going to be real cash help for small businesses that are struggling, the premier just basically had a press conference to talk tough,” Kinew said.
The provincial government is also in the process of rewriting regulations to allow municipal bylaw officers to help enforce the province’s public health and emergency orders.
This could add more than 130 bylaw enforcement officers to the agencies currently helping to enforce the orders, including RCMP and other police agencies, conservation officers, Workplace Safety and Health officials, and Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority officials, Pallister said.
In May, Pallister promised that as many as 216 liquor inspectors, public health officers, workplace safety inspectors, park patrol officers and Manitoba Agriculture staff would join the roughly 2,800 city and provincial staff — mostly police officers — engaged in enforcement duties.
On Wednesday, Pallister couldn’t say how many of those employees are currently dedicated to those duties, or will be in the future.
The province received requests for the change from municipal leaders who want their employees to be able to enforce the orders, Pallister said.
A statement from Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman’s office said city officials were briefed after the premier’s news conference and are now in discussions with the province.
“The mayor has not raised with the premier the topic of enforcement of provincial public health orders since their last meeting in April,” the statement said.
“As we learn more about today’s provincial government announcement, a key question will be what area of enforcement the province is requesting municipalities to address.”
Pallister did not answer directly when asked whether the increased enforcement measures will include cracking down on anti-mask protests.
“The enforcement changes that we’re announcing today will beef up the number of people able to do enforcement. That will help,” Pallister said.
“And also what we hope is obviously that people get the message and are deterred by the potential for losing some coin out of pocket.”
As of Oct. 12, the province had issued 134 tickets for COVID-19 violations, provincial officials said.
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