House gives nod to fines for COVID safety breaches

Lawmakers in the lower House yesterday gave the nod to a raft of penalties and other provisions under the Disaster Risk Management Act (2021), which will see, among other things, those who refuse to wear masks in public or break curfew orders being slapped with thousands of dollars in fines.

Forty offences are now prescribed in the law, with 10 levels of fixed penalties ranging from $3,000 to $500,000.

Failing to wear a mask in public, not keeping the six-feet physical distancing rule, or breaching the protocols governing public transportation will attract a $5,000 fine.

Under the proposed provisions, people caught outside their homes during a curfew could face a fine of $10,000, while a $20,000 penalty is attached to the offence of operating a gym or small outdoor activity outside of specified hours.

Jamaican residents who disobey the quarantine orders on returning to the island from overseas are liable for a fine of $25,000, while non-Jamaican residents and tourists who refuse to confine themselves to the Resilient Corridors are liable to face a fine of $30,000.

Furthermore, the penalty for holding funerals, burials, weddings or worship services in breach of the orders, as well as operating a bar outside of the allowed hours, is $100,000.

Anyone who operates a hotel or resort that is not licensed under the Tourist Board Act, certified by the Tourism Product Development Company, or located within the Resilient Corridors could face a penalty of $500,000. The same applies to any hotel or resort, nightclub or amusement park that breaches the COVID-19 protocols.

The Opposition unsuccessfully sought to have the debate suspended to allow for review of the new provisions which, it said, could be problematic in the future, and lead to issues such as police excesses.

Opposition Leader Mark Golding expressed strong reservations about the executive authority being given to determine criminal offences under the law, without first seeking parliamentary approval.

Golding said he was not seeking to be contentious and would not obstruct passage of the Bill, but he was placing on record his discomfort with that provision in the updated law.

“As a lawmaker I’m thinking about the possibilities that may come down the line. It allows a prime minister to determine that [a particular] conduct is a criminal offence. That, to me, is bad law. Where [a] disaster is declared by the prime minister or by the ODPEM (Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management), it is then open season as to what measures ought to be put in place to respond to that crisis. Previously, those measures were not enforced by criminal sanctions; now they will be,” the Opposition leader said.

Golding noted the removal of the provision which made it mandatory that someone in breach has to be warned by an authorised officer. He stressed that in the 2015 Bill, it was the disobeying of an order which was the prescribed offence, to which there were no criminal sanctions attached, and noted that this meant there was no need for parliamentary approval.

But Prime Minister Andrew Holness pointed out that these powers could only be used in exceptional situations, where a disaster is being declared.

“The Bill is crafted in this way to give great flexibility of response in a disaster, as in a disaster it is quite possible that the institutions of Government, including Parliament, may not be able to work, so this Bill is designed on the continuity of Government, even without the institution of Parliament or the courts. Once there exists a central core of continuity, then the Government can act. I’m very reluctant to change that because it is necessary,” Holness argued.

He said he agreed with the point about parliamentary supervision, but noted that ministerial orders are unheard of in the country’s tradition of lawmaking.

“While I agree that, especially these far-reaching [laws] should have parliamentary oversight, we don’t want to change the structure and framework, which is why I have always come to this House before the orders are gazetted so that there can be debate. We shouldn’t change the nature of the Bill to take that element of quick response away,” Holness insisted.

Furthermore, he argued, the orders are not an element unto themselves, and are framed within the context of the main legislation.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck assured that while breach of orders now falls under the ambit of criminal offences, it will not constitute a criminal record.

Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie advised that the new penalties do not replace the sanctions for offences that are already in the principal Disaster Risk Management Act, under which anyone who is brought to court for an offence is still liable to a maximum fine of $1 million or up to a year in prison.

Furthermore, the definition of disaster has been expanded to include pandemic, hazardous materials incident, and nuclear or radiation emergency.

The Bill is expected to go before the Senate for debate.

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