‘Take the onus off the shop’ and mandate masks in Manitoba, some small business owners say

When customers walk into Dominique Smith’s Winnipeg shop, they find an array of candles, crystals, oils, incense and books on witchcraft and minority religions for sale.

But before they can peruse the merchandise, patrons have to use a handwashing station at the entrance. They also must don a mask as of a couple weeks ago.

Those rules have attracted the ire of a small but vociferous group of critics on the Elemental Witchery and Conjure Boutique Facebook page. Some suggested the rule violated their human rights, Smith said.

In the store, a small number of customers have thrown “tantrums” recently, Smith said. The night the mask rule came into effect, a sign about distancing and handwashing was torn from the store door.

She thinks a government-mandated mask rule could neutralize some of the blowback facing businesses like hers.

“We are now being bombarded with anti-maskers and even COVID deniers — people who are outright denying that [COVID-19] even exists — and we have had people refuse to come into the store,” said Smith, who is immunocompromised and works in the shop.

“If I had that support from the government, I would not ever be getting any sort of abuse, because in the end, it’s the rules.”

One of several comments left on the Facebook page of Elemental Witchery complaining about its mandatory mask rule calls it a human rights violation. (Submitted by Dominique Smith)

A number of small businesses have imposed their own mandatory mask policies in recent weeks and say they’d like to see masks mandated provincewide, but not everyone is convinced such a move would eliminate anti-mask sentiment in stores.

COVID-19 cases are surging in Winnipeg; outbreaks and exposures continue to emerge in schools, care homes, restaurants and bars.

About 80 per cent of active Manitoba cases right now are in the city. That prompted Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to urge the province this week to make masks mandatory.

‘Take the onus off’

Out of the Blue, Black Market Provisions and Prairie Sky Books all mandate masks in their stores, though they’d prefer the government did that for them.

“It would kind of take the onus off of the shop owners and the individuals if the government put something in place,” said Out of the Blue manager Zoe McCrea. 

Out of the Blue is in Osborne Village. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Out of the Blue and Black Market Provisions haven’t had anything beyond what they would characterize as minor complaints or a few frustrated customers turning around and leaving.

At Prairie Sky, a Wolseley book store, most customers have accepted the rule, but not all.

Prairie Sky recently paid to boost a Facebook post advertising new kids’ masks for sale so it would reach more people. They got a number of “trollish” anti-mask proponents criticizing them online, store owner Aynsley Anderson said.

“They were like, well, I hope you die and I hope you go broke,” she said.

Some shared their disapproval in person.

“They sort of come in here and they’d say, ‘Well, I’m not wearing a mask. I’m going to go.’ And it’s like, yeah, well, that’s the other option.”

Prairie Sky Books is in Wolseley at 871 Westminster Ave. (Submitted by Aynsley Anderson)

Organic Planet Worker Co-op member Andee Penner said in a recent Facebook post from the co-op’s account announcing a store mask policy that the co-op was hounded by people with similar views. Some alleged the move was an act of conformity with the system and went against the ethos of a workers’ co-op, Penner said.

“It was a little bit alarming to see some of the anger that was expressed,” she said.

She deleted the original post due to the negative comments.

“If that means that people interpret us going along with the system, so be it — our health and wellness of our customers and us as workers is of the utmost importance.”

In another case, a regular customer jokingly coughed near the produce without a mask on, she said.

Government mandate might not help

Penner is in favour of a government mask mandate, but she isn’t sure it would eliminate the trolling altogether. Neither is the Prairie director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses.

Jonathan Alward trusts government and public health officials will bring in a mask rule if they deem that to be necessary.

Most businesses he’s heard from haven’t reported many instances of unruly customers after bringing in a mask rule, he said.

Only about 30 per cent of local businesses are back at their normal sales for this time of year, he said, so the last thing they need is threats people will stop visiting their stores.

“What small businesses really need right now is … the opposite of where some customers have been very hard on staff, very hard on owners, and making their life more challenging when they’re just trying to keep their business, stay afloat.”

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin was asked Thursday why the province won’t alleviate the potential pushback faced by businesses by mandating masks, given the rise in cases.

“Masks in indoor public places are absolutely a good idea,” he said. “As far as a mandate, we’ve always said nothing is off the table and we’re continuing to follow these indicators closely.” 

Smith said government intervention would help her shop.

“If Pallister and Dr. Roussin had really wanted to help businesses through [COVID-19], one of the ways that they could have done that is to make mandatory masks provincewide within indoor places, including businesses.”

Thirty-seven new cases of COVID-19 were announced in Manitoba, including 30 in Winnipeg, on Thursday. Eighty-one per cent of the 449 active cases are in Winnipeg. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

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