Photo sparks backlash over enforcement of orange phase rules, wearing of masks

·5 min read

An incident outside a store in Woodstock on Monday has sparked concern and confusion over enforcement of orange phase rules.

On Facebook, a woman posted a photo that appeared to show a person being restrained on the ground by two Woodstock police officers.

The woman wrote that she was the person on the ground. She said she was arrested for not providing proof she has a medical exemption from wearing a mask.

Masks are required in public spaces indoors and outdoors under the orange phase of COVID-19 recovery, where Woodstock now sits as part of the Fredericton health zone.

The woman said she tried to enter the Hart store in Woodstock's Carleton Mall and was refused entry because she was not wearing a mask and would not provide proof of medical exemption.

"I responded, 'I am not legally obligated to provide proof,'" the woman said in her Facebook post, adding she then asked to speak to the owner of the store.

Police were called to the scene, and the woman said she was told she would be fined if she did not leave the store. As she was leaving, she said, the officers asked her for identification.

When she refused, she said, she was "tackled," handcuffed, arrested and charged with obstruction of justice, and given a court date in May 2021.

Reached through Facebook on Tuesday, the woman declined to comment further.

Woodstock Police Force/Facebook
Woodstock Police Force/Facebook

Woodstock police issue statement

CBC News has asked to speak with someone at the Woodstock Police Force and is awaiting a response.

But the force issued a public statement on its Facebook page on Tuesday, addressing the police response Monday to "a local business in regards to a customer who refused to leave the store following repeated request to wear a mask."

Our priority continues to be the public safety of our community and we respectfully thank all of you for your patience, understanding, and partnership. - Woodstock Police Force statement on Facebook

The message noted that while it is not customary for police to comment on a matter under investigation or before the courts, "it is necessary that the Woodstock police respond to community inquiry related specifically to why we responded."

The statement did not dispute the Facebook poster's account of what happened. Instead, it reminded readers of the pandemic, the state of emergency New Brunswick has declared, and the mandatory order setting out what is allowed and what isn't under different phases of recovery.

The Woodstock force "respects that not all citizens agree with the enforcement aspect," said the statement attributed to police Chief Gary Forward. People who question the validity of the enforcement were urged to resort to the "court process."

"Our priority has and continues to be the public safety of our community the and we respectfully thank all of you for your patience, understanding, and partnership in responding effectively to this pandemic."

The police statement, and the photo of the arrest, have generated widespread public response both in support of the enforcement and objecting to it.

Submitted by Graham Gill
Submitted by Graham Gill

Russell, Cardy respond to mask confusion, social media backlash

Asked at a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday whether residents must provide proof of medical exemption to mask-wearing when asked, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell referred CBC to the province's website.

The website does not appear to directly address the proof of exemption issue but does note that medical exemptions are allowed.

"However, it is within a business's right to refuse service to a patron who is not wearing a mask, but my understanding is they are supposed to provide some sort of alternative, such as pickup outside the door," she said.

At the same news conference, Education Minister Dominic Cardy referred to backlash over enforcement in the early days of the orange phase and noted "four tickets were given over the five-day period" after the Fredericton region returned to orange.

"Four. So all of the stuff you see on social media around people being arrested in parking lots, a large amount of this is simply not accurate."

Cardy cautioned against what he called the "virus of misinformation" and relying on "random people on social media," saying that people should instead rely on reliable sources such as government officials, "people who are legally accountable for the things we say and do."

Mixed messages causing backlash, business owner says

Woodstock business owner and former police officer Graham Gill posted a video message on Facebook on Monday night, urging residents to "calm down" and contact their MLAs to voice their concerns.

Reached by phone Monday night, Gill said he has had "hundreds, maybe thousands" of people contact him to say they are upset by what they see as "heavy-handed" enforcement of "confusing" Public Health rules.

"I'm getting messages from very upset people," he said. "I'm afraid this is going to end in violence if they don't get a handle on this quickly."

Gill said he did not witness the incident on Monday but he has spoken with the woman who was involved in it.

CBC News has also requested comment from Carleton MLA Bill Hogan and Carleton-Victoria MLA Margaret Johnson about the incident Monday and about messaging and enforcement of mask rules.

"I'm not at all against wearing masks," he said. "But if there are mixed messages, if there's no consistency in the enforcement, you're going to have problems. And we are seeing that."