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St. Thomas businesses prepare for protest against coronavirus health measures

Aylmer Ont. residents opposed to the demonstration lined the streets with some heated moments between residents who did not want the anti-mask rally in their town. Nov. 7, 2020. Sawyer Bogdan / Global News

With St. Thomas the next southwestern Ontario community on the list for a protest against coronavirus-related restrictions, some businesses are planning to close down in response.

Last week the demonstration organized by The Line Canada in Aylmer saw around 2,000 people from across the province gather in the town of 7,500.

The Line Canada describes itself as a “civil liberties group” that does weekly mobile convoys in different towns.

There is no word yet on how many people this coming Saturday’s demonstration will bring, but some business owners have already started preparing.

Read more: Thousands join in Aylmer ‘Freedom March’ against coronavirus public health measures

A post in a Facebook group called St Thomas Happenings indicates several businesses will be closing for the day to prevent people not wearing masks from entering their stores.

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CEO of the St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce Paul Jenkins said the rally’s timing is not ideal.

“We have a business community that has faced numerous challenges this year, and this is one more unnecessary burden to them.”

Jenkins said businesses and customers following the health guidelines around mask-wearing and physical distancing are part of why the region has low case numbers.

“Part of the protests are claiming we need to do this to support businesses, but that’s not what’s happening,” Jenkins said.

He said the protesters are doing the opposite of supporting businesses by forcing many to close down early.

According to The Line Canada’s website, protesters are supposed to gather in the parking lot of CASO Station in St. Thomas at 11 a.m. on Saturday.

CASO Station’s executive director has since come out with a public statement informing people that 750 Talbot St. is private property.

“Any person(s), gatherings, or vehicles who do not have authorization by myself or the Board of Directors will not be allowed to access any property or buildings at CASO Property,” said Larry Longfield, CASO executive director.

Since then, St. Thomas police have said the location has been changed to the Memorial Arena.

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“City Officials along with the St. Thomas Police Service are working around the clock developing an operational plan to address the Freedom Rally,” St. Thomas police said in a statement.

“We have asked rally organizers not to attend our city due to the current COVID-19 pandemic situation.”

St. Thomas police said there will be “adequate staff present on the day of the protest” and recommended that citizens stay away from the rally path.

Owner of Grandma’s Oven in Aylmer, Martha Zacharias, said on the day of the protest in Aylmer, they decided to close at noon instead of 5 p.m. despite Saturdays being their busiest day.

She said they had heard that some people might try and go into all of the businesses not wearing masks, and she was afraid for her staff’s safety.

Even before the official rules about mask-wearing were put in place, she said all of her employees were wearing masks to help prevent the virus’s spread.

“We can’t say we like these rules, but we are just trying to do our part to move forward.”

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Protests are planned for Sarnia every Wednesday and Saturday and for St. Thomas this Saturday, and Woodstock on Sunday.

“The police service has received a number of calls from members of the public who have expressed concern for their safety,” Woodstock Police Chief Daryl Longworth said in a statement.

“I want you to know that we hear your concerns and I want to assure you that the Woodstock Police Service is actively developing an operational plan for the day that will make sure that a sufficient number of officers are in place.”

Global News has reached out to The Line Canada for comment.