Crowded, maskless anti-lockdown protest in hard-hit Aylmer 'dangerous': public health doctor

·3 min read

An anti-lockdown rally in Aylmer on the weekend that saw more than 150 people flout social distancing and mask-wearing was “dangerous” and could undo the region’s hard work staving off a surge of COVID-19, the area’s top doctor says.

“Participating in a large group activity, unmasked, as cases are rising everywhere, is dangerous,” Joyce Lock, Southwestern Public Health’s medical officer of health, said in a statement.

“A single event such as the one held on Saturday has the potential to upend everything this region has worked toward and threatens the health and well-being of hundreds of residents.”

Saturday, people descended on downtown Aylmer in what they called a “freedom march” to protest COVID-19 lockdowns.

Emergency public health measures currently cap outdoor gatherings, even in public spaces, at 25 people.

Photos of the rally posted to social media show large groups, including families with children, not wearing masks or social distancing.

Despite acknowledging that the crowds were violating emergency laws, Aylmer police Chief Zvonko Horvat said no charges were laid or tickets issued.

“We really do have to take that measured approach first before we take any action," he said.

The rally was organized by an Aylmer woman with whom police were in contact before the event, Horvat said.

Southwestern Public Health, which covers Elgin and Oxford counties, including St. Thomas and Woodstock, has recorded 309 COVID-19 cases and five deaths.

Aylmer has had 88 cases, the largest number by far of municipalities served by Southwestern Public Health.

That puts the small town’s COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 at 1,174.6.

By comparison, Ontario’s case rate is 479.2 per 100,000.

Even a hot spot like Toronto doesn’t reach Aylmer’s case rate, sitting at 808.9 per 100,000.

Lock said while asking questions and civic action are a part of political discourse, she’s urging residents to “please choose to protect the community you love.

“We understand that communities and individuals are tired, and they are stressed. For seven months, your lives have been turned upside down by the measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Lock said. “The good news is that individual action is working, and our case count has remained manageable. We are limiting illness, disability and death.”

The anti-mask rally isn’t the first event in Aylmer, a town of about 7,500, to defy public health guidelines aimed at protecting citizens from the deadly coronavirus.

Earlier this spring, during the first wave of lockdowns, the Church of God in Aylmer held multiple drive-in services despite warnings from local police that they broke emergency gathering laws. The law was later changed.

In August, case counts of COVID-19 spiked in the town, with double-digit active cases.

Mayor Mary French described Saturday’s rally as “shocking,” adding she’s worried it could trigger another jump in coronavirus cases.

“Our residents are very upset by this,” she said.

French said the town did not give permission for rally organizers to use park facilities, like the bandshell, for the march.

“When these sorts of things happen in our community, it’s so disheartening,” she said. “It makes our community look foolish."

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press