As a second so-called coronavirus freedom march approaches in Aylmer, Ont., and following word that an additional gathering is being organized for the night before, officials in the London region are reminding people of the public health risks of large gatherings.
On Thursday, medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit Dr. Chris Mackie emphasized that Aylmer’s COVID-19 case count — which works out to an incident rate of 1,187 cases per 100,000 people — “has proven what those risks are.”
“This is a community that has 89 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. That tiny community has more than a quarter of the cases that come from across Elgin and Oxford counties, which includes … St. Thomas,” he said.
After being asked at a media briefing about the potential for Londoners to travel to Aylmer for a campfire Friday night and stay overnight at area homes before attending Saturday’s rally, Mackie described that possibility as “exactly the sort of thing that spreads COVID very efficiently.”
“It’s disappointing that people are blatantly disregarding the health of themselves and others at this late in the pandemic when we know that this is something that can likely have serious implications, including deaths.”
London’s mayor, Ed Holder, said his focus remains on the City of London.
“It’s certainly my hope that no one from London attends this and is also my hope that no one from London opens their home to attendees who choose to participate in this rally.”
In addition to the rally and associated events, a newly-formed group dubbed “Aylmer Cares” is organizing a separate gathering for Saturday morning.
“(The freedom march) chose an afternoon. We chose the morning. That way the police, who we support, can kind of have more control over both groups and keep both groups safe,” explained organizer Dain Couture.
Couture says those in attendance will be asked to respect public health measures and bring a non-perishable donation for the Corner Cupboard Food Bank.
“We’re meeting at a central spot by Palmer Park near the band shell on a nice public space in the park. And we’re going to have people come in groups of less than 25 so we can maintain orderly fashion and the safety of everybody,” he said.
“We’re not just going and walking around everywhere. We have spots, exactly precise locations that everyone is kind of close, but they’re still in their own individual groups of less than 25 people maintaining proper safe distance of more than six feet.”
Couture says he moved to Aylmer about four months ago and he’s recently felt as though he can’t even safely get his groceries.
“Two weeks ago, actually, I was at a gas station and a member of the community had stepped in with no mask inside of the store,” he explained.
“I have a brand new baby, 13 days old, and he decided to pretend to cough or really cough, I don’t know what it is. So I just kind of turned around to him and said, ‘excuse me, sir, do you mind putting on a mask?’ And it escalated so quickly. I actually just quickly paid. He didn’t remove himself. And then I left the store.”
Earlier this week, the town of Aylmer declared a state of emergency “as a result of the potential for civil unrest and service disruptions relating to protests and demonstrations regarding COVID-19 directions, recommendations and orders set out by the Province of Ontario and Southwestern Public Health.”
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.
Mayor Mary French said in a statement that the declaration protects volunteers, staff and elected officials, and also assists with applying or receiving funding that may be the result of the emergency, and creates awareness about the seriousness of the circumstance.
— with files from Global News’ Kelly Wang, Andrew Graham, and Sawyer Bogdan.