Ontario waiting on more than $1.5M in unpaid COVID-19 fines

It’s been months since bylaw officers in Hamilton, Ont., charged Harbour Diner for violating provincial COVID-19 measures, but owner Jenna Graham says she has no plans to pay the thousands of dollars in fines any time soon.

The City of Hamilton website shows the restaurant was charged four times for flouting pandemic precautions under the Reopening Ontario Act. But Graham says the fines are unjust. She’s previously said her restaurant wouldn’t enforce proof of vaccination, comparing the practice to segregation.

“We are fighting those tickets,” she told CBC Hamilton, adding she’s still waiting for a court date.

The charges against Graham are among thousands of COVID-19 charges in Ontario that are awaiting a court date or are in default because they haven’t been paid.

Exclusive data from the Ministry of the Attorney General offers a breakdown of paid and unpaid fines under the Reopening Ontario Act (ROA) and the Emergency Measures and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA) as of the end of 2021.

Data from nine Ontario cities and regions also shows which regions saw the most charges laid.

The province has gained $2,045,016 from 15,054 charges, the data shows. But Ontario is waiting on another $1,550,168 from charges with defaulted fines.

There are also 2,260 charges under the ROA and EMCPA with future court dates. 

While there are more paid fines than unpaid fines across the province, some municipalities are waiting for more money than they’ve received through ROA and EMCPA charges.

Which municipalities are waiting on the most money?

Hamilton, Greater Sudbury and Thunder Bay are waiting on more money through defaulted fines than they have received through paid fines.

Hamilton has $215,985 in defaulted fines compared to $149,150 in paid fines.

Greater Sudbury has $36,143 in defaulted fines compared to $13,505 in paid fines.

Thunder Bay has the biggest disparity, with $73,155 in defaulted fines compared to $16,359 in paid fines.

Toronto collected the most in paid fines, bringing in $292,858, followed by Hamilton, Waterloo Region, Windsor and Ottawa.

Toronto is also waiting on the most money, followed by Hamilton, Niagara Region, Thunder Bay and Ottawa.

The data doesn’t show the cost of each individual charge, but fees can vary. The City of Ottawa told CBC Hamllton that the average fee is about $750.

The Ministry of Labour previously told CBC News that businesses that don’t comply with the ROA can face a ticket of $1,000 or a penalty of up to $10 million.

Which municipalities had the most charges?

Ontario saw 15,054 charges laid by the end of 2021. 

The municipality with the most charges in the dataset is Toronto. It recorded 2,856 charges and had 315 with defaulted fines.

Other municipalities with the most charges are Hamilton, Waterloo Region, Ottawa and Niagara Region.

Why don’t people pay their fines?

Some, like Graham, are refusing to pay their fines because they disagreed with pandemic measures, but that isn’t the case for everyone.

Olivia Mancini works in one of Hamilton’s shelters and says she has always followed COVID-19 restrictions.

The 31-year-old said she received a $500 fine under Administrative Penalty Systems (APS) while eating lunch near a defund the police protest at city hall in November 2020 with a co-worker.

APS are local bylaws and fines that don’t go through the courts and are handled by the city.

Olivia Mancini says city bylaw officers wrongfully ticketed her for violating COVID-19 bylaws. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

She says bylaw officers told her that she and her colleague weren’t wearing masks or physical distancing.

Mancini said she told them they didn’t need to wear masks because they were outside, they were eating and they were in each other’s social bubbles.

“And we got ticketed for not being six feet apart … it was $500 and they said they could give us the $700 provincial ticket but they were doing us a favour,” she said.

“I think they ticketed us because they were at an event to defund them.”

Mancini said she appealed the ticket, which was eventually reduced to $75. She says the protest organizers ended up paying the ticket.

The Harbour Diner is one of the restaurants in Hamilton that did not enforce a vaccine passport. Its owner says she faces nearly $10,000 in provincial COVID-19 fines. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Some municipalities also offered explanations for why some people aren’t paying their ROA and EMCPA fees, including the state of the economy and the number of charges a person may face.

Miranda Vink, manager of court services in Niagara Region, said the adjournment of in-person court matters may have had an impact.

Vink also pointed to a 2020 order by the Chief Justice of Ontario which prevented municipalities from taking collections actions on any new fines from the start of the pandemic through to Feb. 28, 2021.

That means there were no fines reported in that period, and payment timelines weren’t enforced during that time.

When the fines and collections did resume, Vink said there was a rise in requests to postpone payment.

What happens when you don’t pay your fine?

The Ministry of the Attorney General sayss municipalities are responsible for collecting the fees.

When someone doesn’t pay their fine on time, the ministry told CBC News, that fine can go into default and lead to extra court costs and administrative fees.

Municipalities offered up the strategies they use to collect unpaid fees.

Many said they send the person notices and a warning first. If that doesn’t work, they may try tax rolling, garnishment of wages, property leins and writs, which can lead to the sale of specific personal possessions.

Fines can also lead to the suspension of driver’s licences or denial of licence plate renewals.

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