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Queensland is not punishing unvaccinated people for coughing in public

December 14, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: Australia is punishing unvaccinated people who cough or sneeze in public with fines and jail time.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Authorities in Queensland, Australia, are not punishing unvaccinated people who cough or sneeze in public. However, people who intentionally spit, cough or sneeze on public officials or workers face fines and jail time under a public health order.

THE FACTS: In April 2020, Queensland’s chief health officer issued a directive that instituted penalties for people who deliberately cough, sneeze, or spit on public officials and certain workers, or threaten to do so. In December 2021, Queensland officials announced that the policy, which applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, would be expanded to include more types of workers.

Inaccurate claims regarding the directive have circulated widely on social media.

“AUSTRALIA - from the 17th of December, The Unvaccinated will be fined up to $13,000 or 6 months in prison, for offences such as sneezing or coughing in public,” said an erroneous tweet posted Sunday. “The madness continues: sneezing is now punishable for the unvaccinated! #Australia|n police announce $13,000 fines and 6 months in prison for unvaccinated people who sneeze in public,” said another.

But the claims leave out the fact that the policy, which isn’t new, only applies to deliberate acts of sneezing, coughing, or spitting on public officials or workers, as well as threats to do so, according to Queensland officials.

“These measures aren’t targeting unvaccinated people. If you go into a retail store or a coffee shop or anywhere and deliberately cough on someone with the intent of causing fear, it doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not, you’re causing an offense,” a spokesperson for Queensland Health told The Associated Press. “Some people have taken this and gone the next step and said, ‘they’re targeting unvaccinated people.’ That’s not the case.”

Earlier this month, Queensland officials announced that they would relax COVID-19 measures for businesses and add a variety of new restrictions for unvaccinated people. For instance, starting on Dec. 17, bars and clubs won’t face any capacity restrictions, but unvaccinated people will be barred from those businesses.

As part of the new measures, the existing policy regarding intentional coughing, sneezing, or spitting will be expanded to include such deliberate acts against hospitality workers. Violating the directive is punishable by fines up to $13,785 or a maximum of six months imprisonment. The policy covers workers while they are at their place of work and during their commutes to and from work. Queensland officials are still finalizing the changes to the policy.

Former Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr. Jeannette Young issued the order in April 2020 after a public health emergency was declared in January 2020 due to COVID-19.

The current directive states that there are “increasing reports of people intentionally spitting at or coughing or sneezing on public officials and workers during the COVID-19 declared public health emergency.”

“These behaviours increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 and disrupt the ability of public officials and workers to carry out their functions, which are critical to containing and responding to the spread of COVID-19 within the community,” the directive continues.

During a Dec. 7 press conference, Yvette D’Ath, the Queensland minister for health and ambulance services, said that the measure was intended to “protect” workers from “appalling behavior” while they were just trying to do their jobs.

“We believe it’s important to send a very clear message that these workers are here to do their job, to serve you, to make sure you enjoy your experience at these wonderful venues,” D’Ath said. “But we have a responsibility to protect them as well.”

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This story has been updated to clarify that Yvette D’Ath’s title is minister for health and ambulance services.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.