Over the past few weeks, anti-mask protests in the Okanagan area have begun to escalate, likely as a result of the recent regulations enacted by the BC government that masks are now mandatory in all public and retail indoor settings.
Although the BC government was hesitant to set this new regulation, they finally turned to the mandatory mask mandate as a way to help slow the spread of COVID-19 since cases have been reaching record highs in the province. Likewise, many places across Canada have enforced mandatory mask regulations, including in some Ontario cities where these regulations were set back in early summer. Unfortunately, the new regulations in BC have angered anti-maskers causing more protests to take place in the Okanagan.
On November 21, Global News reported an anti-mask protest consisting of around 30 people inside the Orchard Park Mall. These protesters paraded around the mall, without masks on, singing O Canada to make a “statement”. On the following day, according to Castanet, around 100 people gathered in Penticton to demonstrate against mask and social distancing guidelines despite public gatherings being prohibited under new health orders.
Before these incidents, in late October, a small group of anti-maskers gathered at Rutland Middle School and Rutland High School to hand out anti-mask pamphlets to the students. Dozens of other anti-mask protests have also been witnessed in the Okanagan since the start of the pandemic.
These protests make it all the more clear that there are two distinct sides during this pandemic— the people who believe that wearing masks may slow the transmission of the virus and save lives so it is a minor inconvenience worth enduring, and those who, well, don’t believe that.
And while everyone has a right to protest, those who don’t wear masks are putting workers and store owners at risk. During the Orchard Park Mall protest, security was called when the protestors were surrounding an immunocompromised worker yelling at him to take his mask off, according to Global News.
Store owners in the Kelowna area have also shared their frustrations with local news sources regarding customers who refuse to wear masks. On November 22, Global News reported that the owner of Bean Scene North was harassed by three men wearing anti-COVID pins, who refused to wear masks inside the store after being asked. This incident resulted in a 911 call.
The anti-mask protesters in the Okanagan have stated their belief that their “rights are being violated”, wrote Penticton Western News. However, business owners, on the other hand, also have the right to refuse service for violating store policies on private property. Bean Scene North’s store owner, Jennifer West, said to Global News, “I do have a right as the business owner to put rules in place that protect myself, and my employees, and my customers, the same as I can say, if you’re not wearing a shirt, or you’re not wearing shoes, then I can’t serve you.”
As students, many of us work part-time jobs—often in retail—to afford tuition and living expenses. One student, who chose to remain anonymous, shared with The Phoenix how it feels to work during the pandemic when customers don’t respect the COVID-19 guidelines, “The last few months customers don’t give workers proper distance and continue to touch everything in the store. It feels like you’re risking your life for customers who don’t care because they just want to shop,”
It is important to note that some people may have legitimate medical reasons for not wearing a mask. This includes people with breathing conditions or those who cannot remove the mask on their own as it can be a choking hazard. The Northwest ADA Center states on their website that in a situation where a customer cannot wear a mask, “a business may not need to alter their face-mask required policy, but in any event, should attempt to accommodate that customer in an alternative manner ... providing curbside pickup; no contact delivery; or assistance via online store services.”
It seems that, for the most part, the anti-mask protests have less to do with not being able to wear a mask and more to do with not believing in the pandemic’s seriousness and doubting the science that is being shared with the public by health organizations and government officials. BC’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henri, shared her view on anti-maskers, stating that she has, “no time for people who are belligerent and are trying to make some sort of a statement about anti-vax and think that this is not a truly challenging pandemic and I have no time for people who believe that wearing a mask somehow makes them ill or is a sign of a lack of freedom”
By now, almost everyone is exhausted and frustrated by this pandemic, but the anti-mask protests are only adding to the unrest. With second waves affecting many Canadian provinces, energy could surely be better spent by simply respecting one another and taking the necessary precautions to keep others safe.