Police need enforcement tools from the province as public gatherings increase in Victoria and Esquimalt, despite public health warnings to physically distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, says Victoria’s police chief.
“If I’m given the authority from the provincial health officer through the Public Health Act to actually enforce some of the orders, we would use a tremendous amount of discretion,” said Chief Del Manak, noting the province is working on the issue.
“We would want to go in with awareness and co-operation and education first, but where we found there was just flagrant violations and a real lack of understanding and unwillingness to co-operate with these health orders, then at least having the tools to enforce the order would be beneficial and we would use it on a case-by-case basis.”
Officers responded to nine noise complaints over the weekend, including several parties, gatherings and a group at Saxe Point Park.
The people involved, mostly young adults, were not practising “any type of social distancing” and while co-operative, were dismissive of the risk of transmission, said Manak.
“It’s actually worse than the previous weekend,” said Manak. “It’s frustrating because it is unnecessary. … People are choosing to blatantly ignore the provincial health officer’s direction and advice to socially distance themselves.”
B.C. Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has ordered that no gatherings of more than 50 people take place in the province.
At a news conference on Monday, Henry said the number was selected because physical distancing would be manageable.
“It doesn’t mean you can have 49 people at a house party,” she said. “I need people to understand that small groups inside are a risk and small groups and large groups outside are still a risk.
“We need to maintain those physical distances, particularly in the coming weeks.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called the weekend gatherings “exasperating.”
“Don’t party and don’t gather,” said Helps, speaking at a daily city update Monday on COVID-19. “These are our police officers and we don’t want to put them in harm’s way.”
Helps said she also received emails over the weekend about people out playing basketball.
“Don’t play basketball,” said Helps. “There will be time for partying, time for basketball. That time is not now.”
The province is working on an enforcement framework for the provincial health officer’s orders, said Manak.
The enforcement tools would potentially be for all uniformed officers, including bylaw officers and sheriffs, “to respond to egregious complaints,” he said.
“The way I look at it, we’re going to have to get there,” said Manak. “I’m disappointed that there isn’t greater recognition in our community that this is serious, that this is a global public-health emergency.”
Manak said he doesn’t have enough officers to be writing tickets all day, but having the enforcement tool would be “advantageous” in sending a strong message to the public.
Victoria’s police chief said he didn’t think it would be necessary to enforce the physical-distancing order, given the wealth of public health information available.
“I think that I was expecting more people to do the right thing, to have a common-sense approach and to really think of the greater good,” said Manak, pointing to the risk of transmitting the virus to loved ones, police officers, grocery clerks, cleaners, nurses, doctors, care workers and front-line and essential-service workers.
“This not the time to take the foot off the gas. This is not the time to be complacent.
“This is the time to double down. This is the time to really demonstrate in these next few days and in the next week that we are going to tackle this head on and that all of us are 100 per cent committed to doing our part.”
— With a file from Roxanne Egan-Elliott