An anti-mask rally in southern Manitoba drew nearly 200 people Saturday afternoon while cases of COVID-19 surge in the region and the province.
The Hugs over Masks group organized the Steinbach event to protest the provincial government’s public health orders meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — this Thursday, the entire province went into level red under Manitoba’s pandemic rating system.
All gatherings are capped at five people among other, significant measures.
The southeastern Manitoba city of 21,000 people had 263 active cases Saturday — the same day the province announced a record 15 people died of the virus.
A provincial spokesperson confirmed fines were doled out for contravening public health orders, but couldn’t yet provide the number of tickets given.
“Manitoba Justice will be able to provide more specific details regarding fines handed out at this event once all the tickets issued have been processed,” the spokesperson said in an email, adding that enforcement officials were subject to verbal abuse from attendees.
“These enforcement officials should be commended for doing their part to help keep Manitobans safe from the kind of irresponsible behaviour that was on display today.”
Provincial fines for individuals are $1,296, while fines for businesses are up to $5,000.
Manitoba RCMP officers were also on scene but not to hand out fines.
“The RCMP did not issue fines, the focus for the RCMP was to be there to keep the peace and ensure the safety of everyone,” said Cpl. Julie Courchaine.
“The RCMP had a number of officers at the scene including Division Liaison Officers (DLT). DLT’s role is to establish a dialogue and maintain open and ongoing communication with event organizers, which they did throughout the day.”
A Global News reporter saw children and adults at the rally. The majority didn’t wear masks or follow physical distancing protocols. Others held signs touting conspiracy theories.
The Reeve of the RM of La Broquerie Lewis Weiss spoke to the crowd — though, he said, he was not there on behalf of his council and that he appreciates health care workers.
“Let’s question things, there’s many things, we need to educate ourselves,” he said after suggesting attendees watch a video that has been debunked by the Associated Press among other media outlets.
According to Manitoba Health, there are 1,752 total confirmed, active coronavirus cases in the province and 40 announced Saturday in Southern Health, with 795 known active cases.
There are also 24 total deaths in the Southern Health region, with three announced Saturday.
The region also has 43 people hospitalized with nine people in ICU care.
The Manitoba Nurses Union sounded the alarm on Friday over the “dramatically increasing number” of COVID-19 patients at the Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach.
The union says capacity at the facility is quickly filling up, with some nurses even having to triage patients in their cars because of a lack of space in the emergency department.
Anne Cudney, who lives near Steinbach and stopped into the post office on Main Street Saturday, said she doesn’t understand people opposed to the orders.
“It’s frightening that it’s gotten to this point and I just wish people would wear masks, I think if that’s all we can do, let’s at least do that,” she said.
“If everybody would just do that, we’d be in a better spot today, but we’re in a mess.”