Editorial

Public-health officials and government leaders are safely distant in their offices when they compose decrees that Manitobans in public places should wear masks and be fully immunized. It’s considerably more stressful for restaurant wait staff, store clerks and cashiers who get stuck with the unenviable duty of declaring those same decrees to anti-vax customers who may be antagonistic and even violent.

Public-health officials and government leaders are safely distant in their offices when they compose decrees that Manitobans in public places should wear masks and be fully immunized. It’s considerably more stressful for restaurant wait staff, store clerks and cashiers who get stuck with the unenviable duty of declaring those same decrees to anti-vax customers who may be antagonistic and even violent.

The workers on the front lines of vaccination hostility don’t deserve to be yelled at, cursed and spat on, which are all indignities experienced recently in Manitoba stores and restaurants. To get the respect they deserve, workers need backup from officials who have the authority to substantially increase the enforcement of public-health orders.

To get the respect they deserve, workers need backup from officials who have the authority to substantially increase the enforcement of public–health orders.

A blitz of tickets carrying heavy fines will make more of an impression on anti-vaxxers than polite reminders from restaurant servers who, after all, are paid to satisfy, not anger, customers.

This dismaying erosion of civility in Manitoba has been triggered in large part by fervent opposition to public-health measures that require proof of COVID-19 immunization and mandatory face masks for admittance to many public places.

Disagreement with government measures is a freedom allowed in a healthy democracy, but it’s wrong to express this discord in an aggressive manner to store clerks and servers who are just doing their job in refusing service to bare-faced customers.

"We are better than this," Winkler Police Chief Ryan Hunt said in an appeal posted last weekend. He said his community is fractured by anger and resentment, with mask mandates leading to disputes that included one driver trying to run another off the road, and one shopper pushing his cart at another while cursing.

Minister of Justice Cameron Friesen (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Minister of Justice Cameron Friesen (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Provincial statistics show just 41 per cent of eligible Winkler resident have been vaccinated against COVID-19 while, in the surrounding RM of Stanley, the rate is only 24 per cent.

A Free Press reporter who visited a dozen businesses in Winkler found none of them was implementing provincial public-health orders. Business owners said enforcing the orders would result in staff being abused by some customers. The owners also feared that, in a small-town culture, refusing service to anti-vaxx customers could prompt enduring grudges that might threaten businesses’ viability.

What could help considerably is a widely publicized crackdown on individuals and businesses that defy the orders. The enforcement should be conducted by public-health officers, not the owners and staff whose livelihoods depend on the continuing good will of customers, including anti-vaxxers.

If officials are already handing out tickets with diligence, they’re largely keeping it a secret. A provincial government spokesperson refused to answer a Free Press request for the number of tickets issued in Winkler since the return of the mask mandate on Aug. 28.

This dismaying erosion of civility in Manitoba has been triggered in large part by fervent opposition to public–health measures that require proof of COVID–19 immunization and mandatory face masks for admittance to many public places.

Welcome exceptions to the apparent reluctance to ticket offenders came this week in the form of news that fines were levied against several Manitoba businesses, including two Corydon Avenue restaurants that received $40,000 in fines for allowing unmasked and potentially unvaccinated patrons to eat inside for weeks.

Officials should continue to hit public-health scofflaws in the pocketbook, and they should also publicize their efforts widely to make others think twice before they defy health orders.

Justice Minister Cameron Friesen must be well aware of the problem, since he is also MLA for the Morden-Winkler constituency.

He should remember the responsibilities of his office didn’t end with the announcement of the public-health orders. Ensuring compliance with the restrictions is also the responsibility of the government that enacted the restrictions, not the wait staff slinging coffee at Winkler restaurants.