Caution is being exercised in Aylmer, Ont., as the town braces for an upcoming rally that aims to flout COVID-19 guidelines.
On Monday, the town declared a state of emergency which Mayor Mary French said in a statement was “a result of the potential for civil unrest and service disruptions relating to protests and demonstrations regarding COVID-19 directions.”
Local police later confirmed the declaration was in response to the Anti-Masking Freedom March planned for Saturday. That march will mark the second of its kind that Aylmer has seen, with the first happening on Oct. 24.
Aylmer’s Chief of Police Zvonko Horvat told Global News the state of emergency serves as a helpful tool for officers by granting extra resources from other jurisdictions should the need arise on Saturday.
“Part of that area that they’re planning on protesting on is OPP jurisdiction, so we are working collectively with Elgin County OPP. In fact, we’re going to be meeting (Wednesday) on operational plans,” Horvat said.
Horvat added that police have been in communication with the organizer of Saturday’s planned rally.
“We have been working with the protest organizer to try to get her to change her mind on the actual demonstration,” Horvat said.
“Certainly, looking at it from our perspective, we’ve been communicating to her about the necessity to ensure that peace is kept and that people in the community don’t appreciate what’s happening.”
Among those who don’t appreciate what’s happening is Jamie Chapman, the president of the Aylmer and Area Chamber of Commerce.
Chapman says business owners expressed frustration and disappointment to her following the last anti-masking rally.
“Something out of our control suggests to customers that we are not a safe community, but we are,” Chapman said.
Along with driving away potential customers, Chapman also worries the protests are a blemish on Aylmer’s reputation.
“Yes, the protests in town did not help, but did not reflect the way that our community feels. It’s a small portion of our community that feels that way and we do our best to wear our mask and stay distant and follow the protocol that’s been asked of us.”
Chapman’s comments on Aylmer’s obedience to public health guidelines were reiterated by Dr. Joyce Lock, the medical officer of health for Southwestern Public Health, which covers Aylmer, along with St. Thomas, Oxford County and Elgin County.
“We don’t have specific data on that, however, our observations working with our community partners and our municipal partners is that in general, the majority of our community is taking their role very seriously and that multiple citizens are complying with the direction provided by public health,” Lock said.
“I think what this state of emergency might do is perhaps help citizens to recognize that it is really important that each one of us plays our own role in protecting our vulnerable community members,” Lock added.
Speaking to Global News a day after the state of emergency was declared, Aylmer resident Kirsten Wise expressed disappointment.
“I was really surprised with the no-mask rally, but everybody wants their piece, they want to say, ‘we don’t want to wear masks,’ and it looks like it backfired a little bit,” Wise said.
Another resident, Linda Ayres, felt the state of emergency was an unwarranted response to the upcoming rally.
“I think they’re overreacting… I think people should have freedom of speech,” Ayres said.
Aylmer resident Cheryle Rochus shared an opposite sentiment, calling for punishment on those organizing Saturday’s rally.
“I think they should be fined big-time, they’re making their kids follow them in packs,” Rochus said.
Meantime, Mary Morin worries about the damage it may cause to her community’s reputation.
“Nobody’s going to want to come to Aylmer to shop. I’m on my way to work at a store right now and I don’t expect to do much business today or the rest of this week,” Morin said. “We don’t want the protestors here and if (the state of emergency is) the only way to keep that from happening, then I guess that’s what we have to do this week.”
Since the pandemic began, Southwestern Public Health has recorded more than 80 cases of COVID-19 in Aylmer, which holds a population of about 7,500.
However, as of Tuesday, only one case is currently active in the town located southeast of London, Ont.
— With files from Global’s Miranda Anthistle