How do Vancouver's 'social distancing' fines work?

The City of Vancouver now has the power to issue fines to businesses and people who break rules meant to ensure social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19. City councillors unanimously approved the move this week.

Social, or physical, distancing is a provincial public health order — not a suggestion — telling British Columbians to stay at least two metres away from others and avoid crowds of 50 people or more to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The approved fines for businesses in Vancouver can be as high as $50,000, while penalties for individuals can be up to $1,000.

So, how are those fines handed out? 

Who gets fined?

There is no city order solely about social distancing; instead, the city is aiming to encourage social distancing by taking away places and environments where group gatherings occur.

The fines are only applicable to people or businesses ignoring orders issued by the city under its local state of emergency, which was declared under the Vancouver Charter on March 19.

So far, there is just one such order: the ban on restaurants and bars offering dine-in service. That order said the businesses must move to a take-out model only, to avoid crowds of customers sitting down in the same enclosed space for a meal or a drink.

Businesses, like the restaurant or bar, can be hit with the $50,000 fine for breaking that order. People ignoring the order, like two friends sitting down for dinner, could each be handed the $1,000 fine.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

What about parks? Aren't they closed?

The city has taken two other steps to encourage social distancing.

The first was a directive for all businesses to close down if they are unable to keep customers far enough apart.

The city has also closed outdoor recreation areas, including playgrounds and sports fields, to deter groups and teams from getting together.

Ben Nelms/CBC

The fines are not applicable to people or businesses ignoring either of those shutdowns because the closures were not declared under the state of emergency.

The directives could be re-declared, so to speak, if people do not comply.

"We don't at this point, intend to be going to groups of people in parks and ordering tickets," said Sadhu Johnston, city manager. "Obviously, if the situation continues, that will be something we revisit."

The fines will also apply to any further emergency orders issued by the city, but officials hope more orders won't be necessary.

The city has said any social distancing order, should one ever exist, would not apply to people walking on the street. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said the public is allowed to go outside for fresh air or essential trips with members of their household, always staying at least two metres away from others.

How are the tickets handed out?

The fines for individuals would most commonly come in the form of a bylaw ticket, issued on the spot if an authorized enforcement officer has reasonable grounds to believe someone is breaching one of the city's emergency orders.

The larger fine for businesses is a more complicated process. The city is still working out details of who would be able to enforce the orders, but bylaw officers, police officers and firefighters are all possible options.

Around six property inspectors with the city visited about 1,500 businesses over the weekend to ensure the new take-out-only order was being followed. Sadhu Johnston, city manager, said only around 15 were breaking the rules. 

Anyone fighting a fine would take the dispute to B.C. Provincial Court. Regular court operations are currently suspended across the province due to the outbreak.