By Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press
The RCMP is warning people they will do physical checks to enforce the Quarantine Act, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted Friday that rules could be loosened this summer if Canadians act now to contain the spread of COVID-19.
But political leaders continue to stress social distancing must remain in place for the foreseeable future as the country continues to grapple with major problems with the most vulnerable at long-term care homes.
More than 22,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Canada, with the death count now topping 560.
The police force says it has been asked to assist in enforcing the act in the midst of the pandemic. Officers could visit homes to ensure anyone entering Canada is self-isolating for 14 days, and police can now make arrests, rather than issue a court appearance notice or summons.
The RCMP says arrests under the act, violations of which could include a fine of up to $750,000 and imprisonment for six months, will be a last resort.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer, said the move gives officials “the range of tools that might be needed” at this stage of the crisis.
“Of course, we’re asking everyone that when you’re issued an order from the federal government on the Quarantine Act, we expect that to be followed. We are contacting people. And for the majority of the time, you can find them in their rightful place,” Tam said.
“The Quarantine Act has very powerful penalties … you want to make sure fair warning’s given, education’s given and calibrate what you may want to apply to a particular person not following the Quarantine Act.”
Trudeau said Friday he is not planning to invoke the Emergencies Act, which would give the federal government sweeping powers normally reserved for provinces and territories.
The Emergencies Act, which replaced the War Measures Act in 1988, never has been used.
On Friday, the prime minister reminded Canadians that vigilance against future outbreaks will be the norm for the next 12 to 18 months until a vaccine is developed, but hinted that regulatory changes could bring relief in the summer if people stay strong and stay home for the time being to save lives.
“If we do things right, this will be the first and worst phase that we go through as a country in terms of COVID-19,” Trudeau said.
“It is possible we may be out of that wave this summer, and at that point we will be able to talk about loosening up some the rules that are in place.”
He said some people may be able to return to work to “get things rolling again,” though those changes will require a cautious approach.
In Quebec, where the pandemic has hit hardest with 241 deaths and 11,677 recorded cases, Premier Francois Legault echoed Trudeau’s forward-looking optimism Friday, telling Quebecers that better days are ahead as the province fights to win “the battle of our lives.”
Despite 25 new deaths and 733 people hospitalized, Legault said he’s cautiously optimistic that numbers are stabilizing and cases in intensive care are going down.
He said it’s a sign that physical distancing measures are working and said the province will gradually restart activities in the coming weeks.
“In the heart of winter, we still know that spring will follow. We know that better days are coming,” he said.
Long-term care homes remain a major issue around the country, though.
The executive director of a group home for adults with disabilities just north of Toronto says an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility led numerous personal support workers to walk off the job Thursday.
Shelley Brillinger says she’s looking for more people to do the work at the Butternut Lane site of Participation House after all but four staff members left the Markham, Ont., facility when told about the outbreak.
In Quebec, regional health authorities are now operating two facilities.
A privately-owned Montreal-area facility requested government help because many employees were hit by COVID-19 and weren’t able to provide care anymore.
Meanwhile, Trudeau’s personal schedule is about to change this weekend, with a return to parliament and a break from daily public appearances that have been the norm for the last 26 days.
Trudeau will be at the House of Commons on Saturday as the government attempts to pass the wage subsidy bill.
The prime minister primarily has been working from home since March 12 when his wife tested positive for COVID-19. He says he will conduct his daily address to the country from parliament on Saturday, a change in pace from appearances outside his Ottawa residence since March 16.
Trudeau will not conduct daily press conferences Sunday and Monday, saying he will spend more time with his family.
Other provincials leaders have spent the last week stressing that people should find new, virtual ways to celebrate holidays from home, and to avoid travel that could hamper efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
On Friday, Trudeau wished Canadians well over upcoming religious holidays that will be affected by strict containment measures.
“Usually, this is a time we spend together,” he said. “But right now, this weekend is going to be very different. You’ll have to stay home, you’ll have to Skype that big family dinner, and the Easter egg hunt, well, it’ll have to take place around the house rather than out in the neighbourhood.”
Trudeau says the wage subsidy bill will represent the largest economic measures Canada has seen since the Second World War.
The bill will allow companies to get a 75-per-cent subsidy on each employee’s wages.