A rural Manitoba community with a low vaccination rate and high level of defiance against public-health measures has become the largest virus hot spot outside Winnipeg.
Active cases in Winkler spiked Tuesday at 103 after several weeks of numbers between 15 and 20.
"We have lots of manufacturing, lots of people that work together in close proximity," said Mayor Martin Harder. "Some of them insist on masks in the workplace, some of them don’t."
The community, located about 120 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, has experienced a significant amount of pushback against the province's pandemic restrictions.
"Some of them are determined to never wear masks, because it’s... an act of submission, which is very, very strange, but that’s how some people here look at it," Harder said.
Winkler had the third-lowest recorded vaccination uptake rate in the province in late April at just 13.6 per cent of adults.
There have been regular, unmasked protests against public-health orders. The mayor said he witnessed people openly flouting regulations in some Winkler stores last weekend.
"It’s not the general population… but we definitely have some hardliners," he said.
A Free Press photographer observed a handful of people without masks entering and exiting Winkler's Walmart over an hour or so late Tuesday afternoon.
There have been multiple reported exposures in the community's restaurants, a truck stop and a massage clinic within the last month. Notably, two separate restaurants reported exposures every day between May 2-8, from 9 to 10 a.m.
The owner and manager of one restaurant, 1950s-themed Winkler diner Twisters, said a phone call from the Free Press Tuesday was the first she had heard about the straight week of exposures at the business, despite having been there every day.
Christine Kornelsen said she hasn't had any contact with provincial public-health officials.
"It doesn’t give me the opportunity to reflect, and it doesn’t give me the opportunity to be in good standing with your health and safety (officers)," she said.
Kornelsen said she knows about 80 per cent of her customers on a personal level and can often spot diners who are visiting from elsewhere.
A heads-up from the province on an exposure could provide some clarity as to whether the restaurant was serving a COVID-positive regular, she said.
"As a business owner, you’re not going out of your way to specifically find out who those people are," she said, adding she is concerned about the spike in cases.
"What you’re concentrating on is paying the bills, applying the rules, the mandate, your health and safety and the law."
Six $1,296 tickets have been issued after a May 1 anti-restriction rally in Winkler, which, according to a CTV report drew about 70 people to a local park.
A provincial government spokesperson said the investigation is "ongoing," in response to a question about why just six tickets had been issued after 18 days.
In Morden, located a dozen kilometres west of Winkler, cases remain comparatively low — 20 active as of Tuesday — but Mayor Brandon Burley said he "wouldn’t write home and gloat about it," and fears the actual number of active cases in the community is higher.
"I know on Facebook, there’s been a fairly high movement to avoid testing altogether, to avoid having friends and neighbours be quarantined, or being put out of work," he said.
He said several factors — including pandemic exhaustion, COVID-19 skepticism and the fear of being forced to take time off work without paid leave — are keeping some residents from getting tested.
"When you look at our region, we have a lot of families who are working on single incomes, and not necessarily making top-dollar or even the provincial average," he said.
"And so, I understand the fear of having to say, ‘We’re going to do without two or three weeks of family income,’ or possibly be at risk of losing a job. So I understand there are economic variables as well that are keeping families from getting tested, and in our region in particular, that’s a very real concern."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.