Winkler's vocal COVID deniers and low vaccination rate appear to be chasing away commerce from the southeastern Manitoba community.
"I'm not going to go to Winkler, I'm not going to spend time there," a Morden teacher who didn't want to be identified told the Free Press Wednesday.
There are several big-box stores in the city of about 13,000 residents, a draw for people in Morden and other surrounding communities. But months of high COVID-19 case counts and consistently low vaccination numbers have some regular visitors saying they’ve had enough.
Winkler and Morden are just minutes away from each other, but a lax response to public-health order enforcement and hostility from residents refusing to wear masks in public has increased the distance between Manitoba's "twin cities," the teacher said.
"If somebody wants to describe the 13 kilometres between Winkler and Morden, (it's) 13 kilometres that might as well be 1,300," he said. "There's just a completely different take on the world."
“If somebody wants to describe the 13 kilometres between Winkler and Morden, (it's) 13 kilometres that might as well be 1,300. There's just a completely different take on the world.” – Morden teacher
And he's not alone. Residents in Morden and Carman — located a half-hour north — are staying where they are to shop or even driving into Winnipeg.
Winkler mayor Martin Harder said he’s received multiple phone calls from area residents who've told him they won’t patronize Winkler businesses until more people are immunized.
Winkler has the second-lowest vaccine uptake rate in the province at 36.5 per cent. Morden and Carman are at 65.3 and 66.5 per cent, respectively.
"We're going to do our best," Harder said, adding he has some concern that local businesses will suffer the consequences.
"We're going to reach out to the people that come here to shop and serve them well.... And we'll continue to do that and, honestly, restore the reputation that others are trying to destroy."
"We're going to reach out to the people that come here to shop and serve them well.... And we'll continue to do that and, honestly, restore the reputation that others are trying to destroy.” – Winkler mayor Martin Harder
The Morden teacher said he’s heard from co-workers and fellow Morden residents who, if they go to Winkler do so briefly and with a "combination of resentment and fear."
"Prior to getting my vaccinations, I was really quite scared to be (in Winkler) and it certainly influenced my shopping," he said.
"I buy a lot more goods locally here (in Morden), where it seems that people who own the stores or run the stores are much more willing to enforce the regulations."
In Carman, there have been similar concerns raised, but deputy mayor Brad Johnston said he wasn’t sure if they were people airing out "idle threats" or something that would stick beyond the pandemic.
"It's a little bit disheartening," he said. "I believe that it's everybody's responsibility to try and help this situation out."
Johnston, whose wife is a front-line health-care worker, said he’d been open about encouraging constituents to get vaccinated and had faced some pushback as a result. In the long run, he said, more Carman residents spending their money at home will benefit the town.
“As a small community, we always encourage our citizens to shop locally anyway. That's just good business.” – Carman deputy mayor Brad Johnston
"As a small community, we always encourage our citizens to shop locally anyway. That's just good business," he said.
Harder said he believed that it was a small group of people threatening to pull out of shopping in Winkler, and those who followed through with it likely wouldn’t for long.
"Like any boycott, if there is a boycott in that respect, they'll get over it when they're tired of driving to Winnipeg and spending an extra 150 bucks going to Winnipeg rather than coming here and just buying their stuff and going home," he said.
"It's a phenomenon, maybe. It's just something that that people are talking about today. I don't think it'll have long-term effects. And I don't think it should."
The Morden teacher doesn't agree; he said he believes the divisions being created now will last a long time.
"I'm not going to go to sporting events, I'm just not going to go to anything that happens in Winkler," he said.
"I have so much resentment towards what's going on there and anger over the fact that people are putting my kids at risk, they're putting me at risk, by believing fake science and believing in things that have been debunked over and over again."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.