Two big-box stores in Winkler are accused of turning a blind eye to unmasked shoppers, which has scared off customers worried about the impending rapid rise of Omicron cases.
Photos sent to the Free Press purportedly showed almost 40 people at a Walmart in the southern city flouting COVID-19 regulations by failing to wear face masks or having them pulled down under their noses.
Madison Ushakas, 30, said she didn’t see anyone ask the maskless customers to cover their faces when she took the pictures on Saturday.
She said she feels unsafe shopping in Winkler and shared the images to support calls for increased enforcement of the provincial mask mandate.
"When you go into any store in Winkler, if you are wearing a mask, you are pretty much outnumbered," she said. "It’s getting worse. Friends of mine have been harassed for wearing a mask.
"We need enforcement. If Winnipeg can control the issue in stores, I do not understand how a small town can’t do it."
Ushakas and Susan Brown, who both live in Morden, said they have faced intimidation and threats for speaking out on social media.
Brown, 45, visited Real Canadian Superstore in Winkler earlier this month and estimated half of the customers she saw were not wearing masks.
"It’s getting worse in terms of the number of people not wearing masks," she said. "It’s a joke, an absolute joke here.
"I really want the province to come and help us. We’ve all felt abandoned. If they’ve been doing something, we haven’t seen it."
Brown said she raised the matter with a cashier but was ignored.
Ushakas claimed no member of staff was checking for masks at the door when she visited Superstore recently.
The Superstore in Winkler received a $5,000 ticket for allegedly breaching a public-health order between September 13 and 19, according to a weekly public-health order enforcement report on the province’s website.
The ticket is before the courts, a provincial spokesman said.
Ushakas and Brown said many concerned out-of-towners continue to shop in Winkler because it spares them from having to drive more than an hour to Winnipeg to find bargains at bigger stores.
Winkler and the surrounding Rural Municipality of Stanley have been home to protests against mask mandates and lockdowns during the pandemic.
Signs around the community have spread misinformation and displayed messages such as "Fear is the real pandemic" and "Vaccines kill."
Morden Mayor Brandon Burley avoids shopping at Superstore and Walmart in Winkler because he says enforcement is too lax.
He accused the province of being tougher on small businesses, which could struggle to absorb a $5,000 fine, than multinational retailers with huge profits.
Burley claimed companies which fail to enforce the rules are prioritizing profits over the health of customers and staff.
He said enforcement should be "consistent" and fines should be proportional to the fire occupancy of stores. The bigger the store, the bigger the fine.
"There clearly is a double standard when it comes to enforcement on small businesses and big businesses," said Burley. "They need to have the same standard for everyone. Until you get the attention of the directorships of these major companies, nothing will change."
A provincial spokesman said tips are regularly investigated and credible reports are followed up.
"There are currently over 3,000 enforcement officials who are throughout the province to educate businesses about the current public health orders and ensure compliance," the spokesman said. "Most are doing their part to help protect Manitobans from the spread of COVID-19, but in some cases further action is required."
Strategies and tactics are being adjusted "as needed," the spokesman said.
In most Walmart stores, an employee is stationed at the entrance to remind shoppers about the rules and take "reasonable measures" to enforce them, said spokeswoman Felicia Fefer.
"Safety continues to be a top priority at Walmart and we will continue to take measures necessary to support the well-being of our customers and associates," she said. "Health Canada has identified that, when worn properly, a person wearing a mask can reduce the spread of infectious respiratory droplets.
"Masks save lives, are required by government order in Manitoba, and are mandatory in all Walmart stores across the country. We trust our customers and believe the vast majority are abiding by mask policies."
"Safety continues to be a top priority at Walmart and we will continue to take measures necessary to support the well–being of our customers and associates." – Walmart spokeswoman Felicia Fefer
In a statement, a spokesperson for Loblaw said a "vast majority" of customers has complied with provincial regulations.
"Where customers refuse to comply, however, staff are required to enforce the policy so long as it’s safe for them to do so," the spokesperson said. "We ask that our customers continue to adhere to our policies and treat our colleagues with the respect they deserve as they serve our communities in their time of need."
Home to about 14,000 people as of the 2016 census, Winkler has had one of the lowest vaccination uptakes in the province. Just 39.8 per cent of all eligible Winkler residents had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, the second lowest uptake of all districts in Manitoba, the province’s online dashboard shows.
That’s about half the provincial average of 78.2 per cent.
The surrounding R.M. of Stanley had the lowest uptake, with only 20.6 per cent of its residents double-vaccinated.
Winkler, with 38 active cases, had one of the highest totals outside Winnipeg Monday.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder and the Winkler Police Service didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Justice Minister Cameron Friesen was not made available for an interview, but said in a statement that enforcement investigations take time. Of 164 tickets issued between Oct. 4-Dec. 5, the Morden-Winkler MLA said nearly 70 per cent were handed out in the southern region. The majority of fines were for mask requirement violations. Friesen said justice officials and retail partners are engaged in ongoing conversations regarding public health order non-compliance.