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The mandatory wearing of face masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is now one step closer to reality and could see citizens fined up to $5,000 for breaching it.

This after the Public Health (Amendment) Bill was passed in the House of Representatives yesterday. The bill moves to the Senate today.

“The regulations, once issued in the normal fashion…will now prescribe by way of publication that failure to wear a mask in a public place with certain exceptions…that failure to wear a mask, for instance, will attract by way of first offence $1,000 in respect to the breach. By way of second offence to $2,000. And by way of a third offence, to $5,000. After that, you are looking instead to the arrestable offences,” Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said as he introduced the bill in Parliament at the Red House, Port-of-Spain, yesterday.

The exceptions to this mandate, Al-Rawi, said will be dependent on the age of a person, their medical condition, physical disability “or in public circumstances advised by the Chief Medical Oficer to guidelines providing for exceptions.”

Opposition members urged that these exemptions be clearly defined and took issue that the definition of what constitutes an appropriate mask was not a part of the debate.

If successful, the bill would amend the Public Health Ordinance, Ch. 12 No. 4, to introduce a fixed penalty system for offences committed under regulations made under section 105 of the Public Health Ordinance. This section is what allows the Minister of Health to create the regulations to protect against infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

In its current form, there is only one set penalty for breaches to the regulation—$50,000 and six months imprisonment.

“If we have a breach of regulations, as it stands now, one is compelled to look to an arrestable offence, meaning breach an offence, you’re going to be brought forward for the offence, a police officer…would have to charge you, bring you before a magistrate, you’d have to arrange bail…and you’d be treated with under the summary courts’ legislation,” Al-Rawi said.

He explained that the new system would operate similarly to how a motorist is now ticketed for infractions under the updated Motor Vehicles Act.

The bill will also increase the maximum penalty for breaches of the regulations from $50,000 to $250,000 and gives the Minister of Health the power to add or remove offences and to alter the fixed penalties up to $20,000.

The Opposition, however, did not agree with this power being given to the minister.

In his maiden contribution, Barataria/San Juan representative Saddam Hosein denounced the idea because he said the Public Health Regulations were made without parliamentary oversight. He also asked that the minister’s cap be brought down to $5,000 considering the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic for many citizens.

However, Al-Rawi said: “We need to look to the seatbelt example where you have a $2,000 fixed penalty. We need to look at tint on your car at $1,000 a window. Madam Speaker, we’re talking about life and death with COVID. Hundreds if not thousands exposed. For me to accept a recommendation and to advise my honourable colleagues at this parliament to drop this cap to $5,000 is, most respectfully, astonishing.”