The NWT’s chief public health officer on Friday issued orders banning all indoor gatherings, severely restricting outdoor gatherings, and altering requirements for mines.
The orders ban all indoor gatherings in the territory from noon on Saturday, April 11 onward. There can be no more indoor house parties, funerals, religious congregations, or any other form of indoor gathering of any size.
Breaching any of the new orders can be punished by a fine and jail time. A new enforcement team will investigate complaints, though it has not yet rolled out to many communities.
“This means no visitors inside any home,” read a statement from the NWT government. “If you are helping care for someone in your community, you must limit your time inside their living space to an absolute minimum.”
All outdoor gatherings in the NWT must now involve 10 or fewer people, each remaining at least six feet apart from the others.
Gatherings: what you need to know in three bullet points
– No more visitors in your home or visiting other people’s homes
– No parties, funerals, any kind of indoor gathering at all
– Outdoors: 10 or fewer people can still gather, must stay six feet from each other
(There are some exemptions. See below.)
The order does allow people from separate households to gather outdoors as long as only 10 or fewer do so and they all maintain physical distancing.
“You can still go for a walk with your friend but you need to keep at least two metres apart the entire time,” the NWT government stated.
“I do recognize this is going to be a huge adjustment,” said Dr Kami Kandola, the chief public health officer.
Dr Kandola also ordered the closure of tourism operators, bottle depots, gyms and fitness centres, museums and art galleries, bars and nightclubs, theatres and movie theatres, dining portions of restaurants, and salons.
Many such businesses in the territory had already closed. Kandola had long ago recommended they do so.
Here are the NWT’s full instructions for residents regarding the new rules on gatherings:
- No visitors inside any home
- If you’re caring for someone, you must limit your time inside their living space as much as you can
- If you were planning a party, cancel it
- If a loved one has passed away, you cannot have a funeral. You can hold a burial with immediate family, but not a funeral
- You will need to keep in touch with your friends by videochat, phone, social media, or group chat for a while
- No outdoor get-togethers where people stand close together with people who you do not live with. If you have 10 people or less there, you must all keep two metres apart at all times, otherwise it is illegal
- If you’re on the land, your tent is the same as being inside a house – no visitors. And you must only go out on the land with your household
- When you’re out in public, you must keep two metres away from people at all times
- You can still go for a walk with your friend – but you need to keep at least two metres apart the entire time
Exemptions in place
Some people will be exempted from the new oders.
Essential service providers like healthcare workers and some government workers are excluded, as are dayhomes and supports for at-risk communities, like sobering centres. Gas stations, grocery stores, banks, and pharmacies are excluded, as are liquor stores.
Workers like electricians and plumbers will be able to enter your home if you need them in an emergency. Someone regularly coming into your home to care for your child would be exempted.
“Do all you can to flatten the Covid-19 curve,” Kandola concluded. “We will be working around the clock to make sure these orders work.”
Kandola said more than 180 complaints had been received so far, many about parties. The new orders, she said, allow officers to take action against those kinds of activities.
She dismissed concerns that the new orders may infringe people’s rights.
“For a public health emergency, if we’re looking at the greater good of trying to prevent community spread in a pandemic, that would override individual liberties,” said Kandola.
“These measures appear to be restrictive, but we have had five cases of travel-related Covid-19 and if these measures were not in place – if I had let go – we could, based on modelling, have 70 percent of the NWT population exposed to Covid-19 and the healthcare system overwhelmed.
“That’s doing nothing. A half-hearted response will still drag it out. Being restricted for a short amount of time [means] we will reach the peak sooner.”
New order for mine workers
Starting on Friday, every mine worker “must practise 14 days of social distancing before returning to the work site and report any symptoms,” the NWT government declared in its statement.
“This includes all southern transient workers and local employees.”
At remote work sites like diamond mines, Kandola said companies would now be legally obliged to screen workers before each shift and before coming to the site; immediately isolate anyone showing symptoms and keep them from the site; use physical distancing measures while on and off rotation; and use measures like enhanced hand cleaning and pre-wrapping of food.
“Our message has always been that the public health measures will get strong before they let up,” said Diane Thom, the health minister.
“If you don’t respond to education warnings, we’re coming for you.”
Katrina Nokleby, the industry minister, said: “I’m a firm believer in public shaming and I think we need to get to that point. It’s not a great feeling, we’re not like that as northerners. However, that’s the state we’re at.”
Nokleby said mines had already been taking many of the precautions now mandated by Kandola.
“Our government is supportive of continued operations at work sites that have chosen to follow this path,” the industry minister said.
For individuals, breaking the orders carries a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and six months in jail.
On March 21, Kandola placed severe limits on travel into the territory and mandates self-isolation for most people crossing into the NWT. That order remains in effect with the same penalty.
Until Friday, Kandola’s other recommendations were strongly advised but carried no punishment if not followed.
Guidance that remains advisory only, with no legal force, includes wearing cloth face coverings over your mouth and nose while in public.
Covid-19 has now killed more than 100,000 people worldwide, Johns Hopkins University reported on Friday. Canada has recorded more than 21,000 cases and 532 deaths to date.
In the NWT there have been five confirmed cases of Covid-19. Nobody in the territory has yet died as a result of contracting the disease.
Education ‘critical’ on Easter weekend
This week the NWT strengthened its ability to enforce orders by creating a form of pandemic police force staffed by several dozen swiftly empowered public health officers. The force is led by the Department of Lands’ Conrad Baetz, now Kandola’s deputy chief public health officer.
Baetz said public health officers would most likely spend the weekend trying to educate people rather than rush to stricter forms of enforcement like fines. He has already said apprehension will be considered a last resort.
“As with any new order or legislation, there is always an element of education. Education is one of the most critical pieces of compliance,” he said.
“There is a GNWT corporate comms machine that makes sure that, in advance of and immediately after any of this sort of stuff is issued by Dr Kandola, it is spread across the territory on a number of different media.
“It’s a matter of continuing to spread that word.”
What can public health officers do?
The team of 30 or so officers is being drawn from a range of NWT departments, spanning people who ordinarily work as environmental health officers, land use inspectors, or wildlife officers.
Baetz said nobody is being forced to redeploy in the new role. Instead, relevant staff are being asked if they would like to sign up.
“We have capabilities now to react in a number of places, for example Hay River, Inuvik, and Yellowknife. In the coming days, we will be able to react to complaints in all five regions and across the communities,” said Baetz.
Public health officers are peace officers according to the legislation and carry powers to enforce a variety of laws related to health during the pandemic. However, Baetz said he does not envisage them single-handedly attempting to break up parties or perform arrests.
“Primarily, the officers are there to ensure people comply with the orders,” said Baetz. “They have a number of different avenues, from education to written warnings. We have received the ability now to issue summary offence tickets. And then of course, there are court appearances, too.
“It’s really important that safety is number one. I wouldn’t want any public health officers, or any assisting agency, to go into something that is not safe. You manage that by using good sense, good judgement. Observe what’s going on, record what’s going on, and perhaps wait until things settle down.
“I don’t think it’s in our best interest, if there’s a raucous party going on, that you have public health officers in trying to break it up in that sense. I think that’s a misconception.”