Aylmer, Ont., residents hope to shed lingering COVID-19 misconceptions

Aylmer, a small town under the jurisdiction of Southwestern Public Health, moved into Ontario's Orange-Restrict level earlier this week. Andrew Graham / Global News

With its public health unit now in the Orange-Restrict level of Ontario’s colour-coded COVID-19 response framework, Aylmer residents are hoping to shed misconceptions and see a return in customers for the small town southeast of London.

Despite the easing of restrictions brought on earlier this week, local business owners say they remain concerned that Aylmer is suffering from a false reputation driven by anti-masking rallies and church services that garnered police attention.

Read more: How does London’s COVID-19 vaccine booking system compare to other regions?

“As if COVID wasn’t enough, we’ve had to deal with all of the negative publicity surrounding our town,” said Martha Zacharias, the owner of Grandma’s Oven, a bakery that’s been in Aylmer for more than a decade.

About 90 per cent of her clientele comes from out-of-town, but Zacharias says they’ve seen a drop in visits with customers citing coronavirus concerns.

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The bakery would also see a notable drop in customers whenever anti-masking rallies were held in the town, such as one in November that drew thousands.

“We even had orders cancelled during that time of people just not feeling comfortable coming in,” Zacharias said.

“To this day, with everything surrounding Aylmer, even now just with the police college and the outbreak, it’s just all negative and there isn’t a lot of positive light on the town of Aylmer.”

Read more: Ontario Police College outbreak in Aylmer linked to 65 cases

Zacharias says social media has helped fill in some of the gaps, along with a loyal following from regular customers.

“We’ve really tried to be creative and step outside the box a bit with some of the stuff that we even offered for Valentine’s Day and we actually had a huge increase in sales that we’ve never had before,” Zecharias said.

“Throughout this entire thing … we have the loyal followers that will continue to come back and don’t have a problem lining up in the cold weather and waiting outside to come in. It’s been very encouraging.”

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The pandemic-related cost to local business is also being felt by Izabela Maloney, the owner of Bela Booteek and By Bela.

Maloney previously had retail stores in London, but relocated to Aylmer after falling in love with the location, which she describes as an “attractive little town for destination shopping.”

“We were always really busy (before the pandemic) and had a great business, and this is not good right now,” Maloney said.

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Maloney worries out-of-town customers feel as if Aylmer businesses neglect COVID-19 health measures, a misconception that she credits to anti-masking rallies.

“I don’t think we need it and I think whoever organized (the rallies) should be more concerned and worried about the future of the town,” Maloney said.

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“I just hope we can pass that and we’re not going to have it anymore.”

Read more: Phase 2 of Ontario’s vaccine plan to focus on age, neighbourhood and health conditions in April

Jamie Chapman, town councillor and president of the Aylmer Chamber of Commerce, says local business are doing their part in following health guidelines and curbing the spread of COVID-19.

“The merchants are diligent about keeping things clean and wearing masks and all of those things. A very small portion of the community is part of that anti-masking group,” Chapman said.

While Chapman had previously expressed concern that anti-masking demonstrations would leave a blemish on the town’s reputation, she’s now more focused on helping businesses reopen.

“It’s not as daunting as it was … people are more compliant and it’s getting easier,” Chapman said.

The local official adds that she was happy to see a video published last month that focused on Aylmer’s positive side and presented viewers with what Chapman considers to be an honest reflection of the town.

“We are a very welcoming, caring, kind community and that video really represents us well.”

The video was put together by Linda Kalmikov, a lifelong Aylmer resident who has six generations of family rooted in the town.

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The video features three and a half minutes of photos from around Aylmer, gathered by Kalmikov and her husband Rick. The couple took the photos with the aim of painting the town in a positive light.

“Because of the choices and actions of such a small, small, tiny percentage of our population, this broad swoop brush of negativity and criticism and stone-throwing (has been placed on) Aylmer,” Kalmikov said.

“I said to Rick: ‘This can be our little part of trying to change the headline, so I’m going to post it on Facebook.'”

Read more: London, Ont., restaurant, bar, BMO Centre optimistic to move to orange zone

After the video was published, Kalmikov said she and her husband received hundreds of messages, texts and phone calls from those who hold Aylmer close to their heart.

“This lady who lived in Aylmer, her family grew up in Aylmer — she’s since moved — took the time to call us and talk to us about this and she said, ‘I may have moved away, but it’s still my home town,’ and it just made me feel so good,” Kalmikov said.

“This has certainly been an opportunity for our community to reconnect.”

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