Calgary police and bylaw officers are cracking down on people who are "blatantly ignoring" public health rules designed to keep people safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, city and enforcement officials reaffirmed Thursday.
Police announced on Wednesday that they had charged three people under the Public Health Act after a rally last weekend, and were looking for three others who are also facing charges.
During the protest, hundreds of people marched through downtown Calgary to protest against mandated masks and other public health measures intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On Thursday, police confirmed to CBC News that they have mailed tickets to the three who were being sought.
The individuals face charges of contravening an order of the chief medical officer of health and failing to wear a face covering, with fines of $1,200 and $50, respectively.
"The biggest challenge that we seem to be facing right now are those that are blatantly ignoring the laws," Mark Neudeld said.
"The issue is not that they're unaware and require education. The issue is more that they disagree, and these people will be charged accordingly."
'This is about keeping all Calgarians safe'
The protests have been a weekly occurrence in the city and across the country for months, but Saturday was the first since the province introduced new restrictions, including that outdoor gatherings must be limited to 10 people while still following physical distancing and other public health guidelines.
When Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the tightened restrictions on Nov. 24, he also warned that peace officers or police can fine people who break restrictions, with $1,000 per ticketed offence and up to $100,000 through the courts. That announcement boosted calls for police and bylaw officers to start charging scofflaws.
The news comes as Alberta continues to lead the country in total active COVID cases, with 17,144 active caseson Wednesday afternoon,compared with 14,526 in Ontario, a province with more than three times as many people, and 12,740 in Quebec, which has twice the population.
It has also led the country in terms of new infections per capita over the past week.
There are currently 6,331 active cases of COVID-19 in Calgary, 162 people are in hospital and 30 are in intensive care. Since the pandemic started, 202 in Calgary have died of the disease.
"We are absolutely not looking to punish people who are simply trying to get through this pandemic," Neufeld said when he announced the new charges on Thursday.
"This is about keeping all Calgarians safe by addressing disappointing and intentional acts of defiance that threaten our health-care system and our well-being."
Calgarians are welcome to exercise their right to protest but have to follow the same restrictions as the rest of the city, Neufeld said.
Police officers will continue to use their discretion when enforcing restrictions, and will work to be reasonable, focusing their attention on people who blatantly disregard the public health rules, Neufeld said.
"We've acknowledged people's constitutional right to gather and have their voices heard … but limits have been temporarily placed on those rights and freedoms in the interests of public safety and the health of our citizens," he said.
City in process of serving two tickets
Chief bylaw officer Ryan Pleckaitis also provided an update on the city's enforcement for community standards at the conference.
The city is in the process of serving two tickets under the Public Health Act stemming from incidents that occurred around City Hall on Sunday and Wednesday, Pleckaitis said.
There are additional fines that the city will serve in relation to these incidents, and under a number of other bylaws, Pleckaitis said.
He wanted to remind citizens that a first offence is $1,200 while further offences are up to $100,000.
In regards to a request the city has made, asking that the province expand more authority to enforce restrictions to Level 2 peace officers, Pleckaitis said there have been no developments.
"Unfortunately, I don't have much news on this front. However, we've had good dialogue with the province this week … and we hope to hear back soon," Pleckaitis said.
Like Neufeld, Pleckaitis said bylaw officers would focus on those who blatantly disregard the rules.
New Year's Eve fireworks cancelled
Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Sue Henry, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, were also at the conference and provided brief updates.
Nenshi said that the city's New Year's Eve fireworks and celebrations would be cancelled this year because of COVID-19, and said the city will have more information on alternative, safe and less expensive options for New Year's in the coming weeks.
"There are many ways you can mark the occasion by staying safe and, of course, we encourage you to stay home this year so you can stay safe and healthy," said Nenshi.
"There are opportunities to celebrate outdoors in small groups. The city has the winter fire pits program … [and] plenty of toboggan hills and cross-country skiing tracks in park and pathways. Some outdoor skating rinks will be available, including Olympic plaza."
Park fire pit program 'huge success'
Henry said the city's community fire pit initiative, which has set up fire pits at select parks across the city, has been such a success that additional staff will be added to manage it.
They are also looking at adding additional fire pits to meet demand, she said.
"This program has so far been a huge success. As of this morning, we have had over 900 requests to book," Henry said.
In order to support local businesses during the holidays and expand curbside pickup, the city will remove rush hour parking restrictions in three districts, Dec. 7-27.
"This means on a weekday at 3:30 or 4 p.m., you can remain parked if you are in one of the three participating zones where ParkPlus zones transition into a no stopping zone," Henry said.
The three neighbourhoods include:
Kensington Business Revitalization Zone.
4th Street S.W.
17th Avenue S.W.