Vernon grocery store is seeing rise in anti-mask customers | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Vernon grocery store is seeing rise in anti-mask customers

Image Credit: ADOBE STOCK
March 18, 2021 - 7:00 AM

Grocery store manager Tamsen Guidi clearly sounds a bit defeated.

Almost four months after the provincial government made wearing face masks in public spaces mandatory, Guidi's grocery store still has to deal with customers stubbornly refusing to cover-up and being hell-bent on causing a disturbance.

And surprisingly, she says the number of people refusing to wear a mask is actually increasing.

"It seems like it ultimately got worse following Christmas," she said. "There's a small very vocal group of people that are very upset about it and have no problem letting people know."

She says her family business, Butcher Boys Grocery Store, saw more incidents last week than the average week. One incident involving an anti-masker resulted in a call to the RCMP – once the anti-masker had finally left the store.

"The individual ignored repeated attempts by staff to gain their compliance and eventually left after being refused service," Vernon North Okanagan RCMP const. Chris Terleski said in an email. "The incident was reported to police who have identified and spoken to the individual. The incident remains under investigation at this time."

Since mask-wearing became mandatory last November the grocery store has put up the cost of having someone stationed at the front door to remind customers they need to wear a mask and deal with the challenging behaviour this simple request can create.

Guidi reiterates it is a very small minority of customers that cause issues.

"There was about a month there where we had to escort someone out about once a week," she said. "People come intentionally trying to get a reaction or a rise."

While it's very difficult to quantify the increase in anti-maskers heading into Butcher Boys, statistics from the Vernon bylaw department do show that one year into the pandemic complaints related to COVID-19 and the Public Health Order aren't getting any better.

In 2020 Vernon bylaw officers have dealt with an average of 3.8 COVID-related complaints per week since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2021 that figure has only dropped to 3.6 complaints per week.

The majority of the COVID complaints were forwarded to the Interior Health or WorkSafe B.C., with three files being passed to the RCMP, although the specifics of the incidents have not been released. Vernon bylaw officers also passed five files to police for businesses operating after their sector had been ordered to close.

The reasons for the bylaw complaints are very varied, but bylaw officers say the nature of the complaints hasn't changed significantly between this year and last.

READ MORE: Small number of anti-maskers in B.C. compared with other places in the world: UBC professor

Following the introduction of the mandatory mask law, stores across the Interior saw some egregious behaviour from anti-maskers.

In Kelowna, an anti-masker threw hot coffee at an IGA employee after they refused to wear a mask and were asked to leave. Days later a south Okanagan gas station owner asked the public for advice on how to handle customers refusing to wear masks after his staff received threats. Even prior to the ban Kelowna RCMP said they'd dealt with multiple issues when stores introduced their own mask policies.

And unlike the toilet paper buying frenzy which ultimately faded away, time doesn't seem to have helped people accept the new reality either.

In January, a Kelowna restauranteur said she'd never had to deal with such mistreatment in her 25 years in the industry. In February a man was arrested for trespassing in a Coldstream liquor store after he refused to wear a mask then and refused to leave.

"Businesses are not public property, they are private property, and owners and staff have a right to refuse service to those who do not abide by the conditions set out in the public health orders," RCMP Const. Terleski said after the Coldstream liquor store arrest.

But not all business owners are as candid as the Butcher Boys manager and it's hard to know if others are also seeing an increase.

Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Richard Rolke said the organization hadn't received any formal feedback from its members about customers refusing to wear masks but added "that is not to say that such situations aren’t occurring."

The Downtown Vernon Association said its members hadn't mentioned the issue since the fall.

Loblaw, the parent company of the Real Canadian Superstore, said they hadn't seen an increase in anti-mask behaviour. The company didn't answer when asked whether they'd had to spend more money on security, or how much of an issue anti-maskers were, only adding that "the vast majority" of its customers seemed happy to comply.

Sobeys, the parent company of IGA, Safeway, and FreshCo, didn't get back to us on the issue, neither did the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1518 Union that represents some of the supermarkets' workers.

Casually, one grocery store clerk said customers refusing to wear masks was a daily occurrence. And while most incidents weren't at all serious she was tired of the endless barrage of complaints she received. Another clerk at a different store, said they “had a few.”

Lakeview Market manager Ed Desjardins said "knock on wood" his Kelowna grocery store had been really lucky to avoid the issue.

"At the beginning, before it really started to sink in with people I had a few people coming in (saying) 'it's against my religion' or 'it's against my rights' and all this kind of stuff,'" Desjardins said. "(But) for the most part it's been really good."

However, Desjardins has a grim prediction.

"Once people start getting vaccinated I can see people going 'Well I'm vaccinated I don't have to wear a mask,'" he said. "I can see people going down that road, I really can."

So unlike the toilet paper buying frenzy which ultimately withered away along with a multitude of other pandemic-related trends and behaviours, the occurrence of people refusing to wear masks doesn't appear to be fading.

READ MORE: Fear, tension and kindness: A view of the pandemic from a Vernon grocery store manager

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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