Social gathering bans possible, but experience elsewhere shows public buy-in, enforcement help

Never mind what the law says, Manitoba’s top doctor urges — stay home as much as possible.

But Dr. Brent Roussin’s message was muddied by declaring a ban on social gatherings Tuesday, followed the next day by a public health order that contradicted him by still allowing as many as five people to gather.

The province’s chief public health officer offered a couple explanations for the discrepancy on Thursday, ranging from the many exemptions the order would need to the challenges in actually enforcing a ban.

Yet other jurisdictions have found a way to do that.

A few days ago, B.C. cracked down on social gatherings by temporarily banning anyone in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions from interacting socially with anyone outside their immediate household.

An exception was made for people living alone to spend time with “one or two other people,” B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.

Surrey RCMP said the new order is “certainly” enforceable, but they need the public’s help.

“When it comes to private residences, it’s a little bit more difficult because we can’t be everywhere at all times,” Cpl. Joanie Sidhu said.

“That’s where we rely on members of the public to call in when they see their neighbours having people over.”

$2,300 fine for 15-person party

Last week, Surrey RCMP responded to a call of several people emptying out of a van and entering a home. When they arrived, they found a house party with roughly 15 attendees.

Police levelled a $2,300 fine, Sidhu said.

Officers would prefer to issue warnings first, she said, but “in that situation, the officers were able to see that there was a clear contravention of the orders.”

Sayisi Dene First Nation Chief Evan Yassie said his community instituted a strict lockdown after three cases of COVID-19 were reported. (Submitted/Chief Evan Yassie)

One of Manitoba’s northernmost communities started banning all social gatherings of any kind on Thursday.

Sayisi Dene First Nation, which has around 320 people on reserve, reported three cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. Under the indefinite lockdown, people who knowingly disregard the stay-in-place order may receive a $1,000 fine or lose their job.

Chief Evan Yassie said the community is taking a “hard-line approach” because it doesn’t have easy access to health care. He also wants younger people to take the virus seriously.

“We’re trying to be as strict as possible to keep everybody at bay and make them aware that we are not toying around with the lives of the rest of the community,” Yassie said.

Ex-Winnipegger ticketed in Germany

Former Winnipegger Alex Pawlowsky said receiving a ticket for disobeying gathering limits in Germany served as a stern reminder of the importance of staying apart.

Back in April, Pawlowsky was only allowed to meet with people from one other household at a time — a rule he usually diligently followed.

But when he went to a park with a friend, they ran into a mutual friend who came by for a few minutes to chat.

During a span of a few minutes, a police officer spotted them.

Alex Pawlowsky, a former Winnipegger now living in Berlin, said getting a ticket for a brief meeting with two other friends drove home the seriousness of his country’s public health enforcement. (Submitted by Alex Pawlowsky)

“Even before the ticket, I definitely wanted to respect the law, but after receiving this, it sort of hit close to home that this is something that needs to be taken extra seriously,” Pawlowsky told Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

The restrictions were relaxed over the summer, but he said the officers are still around, which has made some people fearful of the police.

“I’m doing my best to follow these laws and regulations, to keep myself safe and the people around me safe, but it’s difficult to live with even when we’re all doing our best,” he said.

Psychological consequences

Winnipeg clinical psychologist Dr. Jo Ann Unger said limiting people’s social interactions has consequences for our physical and mental well-being, as well as the economy. 

People bought into the lockdown in the spring, she said, because they felt the sense of urgency as the pandemic was unfolding. But over time, fatigue has set in and it’s become hard for people to understand that their sacrifice is worthwhile. 

“We can talk ourselves into not following recommendations because we’re not seeing the immediate impact in our lives,” said the president of the Manitoba Psychological Society.

“In terms of helping people follow recommendations, it’s got to take into account the psychological factors and behaviour change. And how do we harness those to really solidify people making choices consistently over a longer term?”

Winnipeg lawyer Robert Tapper said there’s no question a government has the legal right to ban social gatherings and enforce penalties when a highly communicable disease has surfaced. 

“People are expected to be reasonable, so I don’t have a difficulty with that,” Tapper said.

But “I don’t think you’ll see the government say zero socialization of any kind.”

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