HALIFAX — A COVID-19 outbreak linked to at least three deaths in northern Nova Scotia has prompted the government to impose heftier fines for groups and individuals who flout public health orders.
Premier Tim Houston said Thursday the impetus for the beefed-up enforcement measure was a recent faith-based gathering that health officials have said was responsible for a deadly outbreak at the 74-bed long-term care home East Cumberland Lodge, in Pugwash, N.S., and a death at a group home in Amherst, N.S.
Houston said the maximum penalties had been too low, after a pastor in Amherst was fined $2,422 on Wednesday for organizing a religious event in October that violated COVID-19 health orders.
"We need to take the steps that we can," the premier told reporters following a cabinet meeting. "There needs to be a deterrent and the fines as they were, were not appropriate."
Effective immediately, organizations will be fined the highest maximum penalty under the Health Protection Act: $11,622 for a first offence and $57,622 for the second and each subsequent offence. As well, individuals who either organize or attend an illegal gathering will face the highest maximum fine of $2,422 for a first offence and $11,622 for subsequent offences — and individuals can also face jail time.
Houston said the fines were the highest his government could impose without making legislative changes. "I don't think $11,000 is insignificant to most individuals … the public health restrictions are there for a reason — to keep us safe — and those that ignore them put us all at risk, and we've seen that very clearly," he said.
The premier said it's unlikely the costlier penalties could be applied retroactively, but he expressed hope that more people — other than the pastor — could be fined for attending the October event, as a result of the province's ongoing investigation.
Health officials reported no new cases of COVID-19 at East Cumberland Lodge among the 22 new infections reported on Thursday. A total of 31 residents and 10 staff members at the home have tested positive for novel coronavirus. Nova Scotia has 236 active reported infections.
On Wednesday, Houston said the religious event organized on Oct. 21-25 by Robert Smith, pastor of the Gospel Light Baptist Church in Amherst, showed a "complete disregard'' for public health measures. As well, Houston said a sermon delivered by Smith on Sunday — and shared on social media — was "totally disgusting" because it minimized the loss of life.
In the sermon, Smith described what happened as an "unfortunate" event and added that it was "God's will."
"People are trying to shame us,'' he said in the video. "But I will never be ashamed of what I do for Christ. Is the thing unfortunate? Yes, but I'm not ashamed because I did what I'm 110 per cent sure Christ wanted me to do.''
Asked for his reaction, NDP Leader Gary Burrill — an ordained United Church minister — said that every religious tradition has its "less sensible exponents."
Burrill also stated his distaste for Smith's justification in referring to God's will. "I think it is a sad distortion of the Christian Gospel to speak of the will of the Creator in this way," he told reporters Thursday.
Houston has said that he felt the province's inspection and enforcement team, which operates under the Environment Department, had reacted slowly in its investigation of the religious event in Amherst.
On Thursday, Environment Minister Tim Halman said he issued a directive to his staff to improve the department's approach to compliance. Halman said the emphasis had been on educating the public about the rules, and he said that will switch to ensuring they adhere to them.
More than 1,300 summary offence tickets — worth more than $1.7 million in fines — have been issued under the Health Protection and Emergency Management acts since a provincial state of emergency was declared in March 2020.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press