Ontario NDP pushes for safety zones as anti-vaccine protests continue to plague restaurants

·3 min read

The Ontario NDP is planning to introduce a bill that would create safety zones around restaurants to keep anti-vaccine protesters farther away from staff and customers.

Concerns around such protests have exploded in recent weeks. As Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg told CBC's As It Happens last week, anti-vaccine-passport protesters have been crowding outside her establishments' patios for weeks, banging on pots, yelling at customers and calling her a Nazi.

On Saturday, more protesters gathered outside Agg's Bar Vendetta in the city's west end. On camera, a police officer can be seen speaking with the protestors, telling them: "As far as the police are concerned, we don't have a dog in the fight, we're just simply here, we're neutral."

The clip was captured by Toronto lawyer Caryma Sa'd, who has become a mainstay at such protests this summer, documenting them and sharing them online.

"I've seen people leave, I've seen people stay for one drink and decide it's not, maybe, worth it," Sa'd told CBC News.

"There are people shouting, they're getting in the faces of patrons, they're banging pots and pans to create ruckus noise, they're obstructing traffic."

Agg had a similar experience: "I have not engaged with them, but I have had to listen to them harass my staff and yell at me, scream in my face that we're Nazis [and] I'm the queen bigot. You know, it's good to be queen, but not that way."

Toronto Mayor John Tory offered his support to Agg, calling the protesters' behaviour "unacceptable." Tory supports vaccine certification, but a provincewide passport is still in the works.

Premier Doug Ford met with his ministers Tuesday afternoon to deliberate on the details of a COVID-19 vaccine passport system for Ontario, a source told CBC/Radio-Canada, after an initial plan was rejected by cabinet Monday night.

But if restaurants are going to avoid losing business to protesters after suffering through successive pandemic lockdowns, Ford needs to impose safety zones too, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"What it would be is a safety zone that keeps folks at a distance so people who are trying to enjoy their evening out or their lunch on the patio don't have to deal with these organized harassers who are literally causing businesses to lose clients and customers," she said.

"People need to be really thoughtful about hurting our economy further … and putting each other in unsafe situations and unsafe spaces."

Horwath said the details of the bill the NDP plans to table this fall are still being finalized, but she expects it will only be in place during the pandemic.

She said she doesn't want to infringe on people's right to protest.

"We're not saying people can't protest; what we are saying is in this public health global pandemic… we need to give those businesses the space to do their business," Horwath said.

The difference between how officers have responded to anti-vaccine protesters versus Black Lives Matter demonstrations and rallies in support of people living in homeless encampments in Toronto parks has prompted some to question whether the police are being more accommodating to anti-vaccine protests.

In the clip Sa'd shot on Saturday, a police officer can be heard telling protesters, "Believe it or not, I respect your thing."

She worries that it doesn't "send a good message."

In a statement, Connie Osborne with the Toronto Police Service reiterated that "Everyone has the lawful right to peacefully protest."

She said "extra officers" were in the area this weekend to assist business owners and that during the protest Sa'd shot on video, police made it clear to protesters "that any criminal behaviour could result in arrests."

No arrests were made.

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