WINKLER — It’s the lunch rush at Twisters, and wait staff are serving up coffee and sandwiches to hungry diners.
Patrons at the 1950s-style diner are greeted warmly, seated and given menus. Staff members and customers exchange small talk, but one topic of conversation is notably absent: COVID-19.
On a recent Friday, the Free Press visited a dozen Winkler businesses, none of which implemented provincial public-health orders mandated to curb a looming fourth wave of the virus. COVID-19 is taking hold in the southern Manitoba city, where vaccination rates are the second-lowest in the province, higher only in the surrounding Rural Municipality of Stanley.
The vast majority of patrons walked into Twisters unmasked and no one, including a Free Press reporter, was asked to show proof of immunization. A few coffee refills later, a young server came by and asked the reporter if they had proof of vaccination and a mask, but didn’t ask to see either, because she said staff had been tipped off that it was possible a health inspector could be checking that day.
Flouting health orders pays off for city restaurantsClick to Expand
Posted: 5:19 PM Sep. 17, 2021
The flagrant violation of public health orders has been good for business for two Winnipeg eateries.
“We will not comply with any unconstitutional mandates!” reads a sign taped to the door that leads to the Monstrosity Burger and Tuxedo Village Family Restaurant, which share a space in a Corydon Avenue strip mall. “We will not participate in helping government steal your freedom of choice and divide our people!”
Public-health officers didn’t visit Twisters that day, so no fines were issued, owner Christine Kornelsen said. She said while it was possible servers weren’t asking for proof of vaccination or masks, she and her staff were confused by muddled messaging from the provincial government at the time about what they were required to enforce.
"We’re trying to enforce whoever will listen, put it that way," she said.
Since the Free Press visit, staff have been briefed on the rules and have become more strict when asking for proof of immunization and masks, she said.
There doesn’t seem to be any way to find out the number of tickets — if any — were issued in Winkler that day to individuals and businesses for public-health order violations. A provincial government spokesperson refused to answer a Free Press request for that information, as well as the number issued in that community since the return of the mask mandate in establishments on Aug. 28.
The spokesperson instead referenced the weekly COVID-19 enforcement reports, which do not break down the numbers of violation notices by health district.
"The Manitoba government appreciates the partnership of our business community to help keep Manitobans safe and protected from COVID-19 and while we reopen our province," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
“We’re trying to enforce whoever will listen, put it that way." — Twisters owner Christine Kornelsen
From Sept. 6-12, enforcement officers handed out 14 COVID-19 health order violation notices in the entire province, including two $5,000 fines to businesses.
The province reported 88 new COVID-19 cases Friday; 30 of them — the highest number of any of the five regions — were in Southern Health, where Winkler is located.
NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine accused the provincial government of taking an irresponsible step backward when it comes to cracking down in health districts where Manitobans are blatantly ignoring health orders and putting lives at risk.
"I think that it’s quite shameful to see how folks have not stepped up and (done) their part... and equally shameful that the government is kind of just throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Well, there’s nothing that we can do. Let’s not upset certain segments of the Manitoba population. Let’s not do anything that’s going to make them uncomfortable,’" Fontaine said.
Anti-vaccine/anti-mask rallies that have drawn hundreds in various communities have proven that the province will not act proactively to stop dangerous gatherings before they start, she said, pointing to the disproportionate ratio of the number of people often at these rallies and the number of tickets the province reports handing out.
"The government knew, has known, over and over and over again, when these people rally and when they put people’s lives, really, at risk," she said.
Tensions have, in extreme cases, escalated to violence in Winkler. Police are investigating after a confrontation between a masked woman and unmasked man inside a store ended with the man running the woman off the road when she attempted to drive away from the store Aug. 28.
Winkler is taking a break from being in Friendly Manitoba, it seems.
"Not all, but some of them are just angry, they take it out on staff members at the store," police Chief Ryan Hunt said. "We’re just seeing a lot of frustration."
A couple of days later, police were called to a similar situation where someone shoved their shopping cart at an unmasked customer and uttered threats. No one was charged, but the unmasked shopper received a warning.
Winkler police issued "less than five" tickets in the last week. Hunt declined to say how many health-violation tickets have been issued by his officers overall.
"There’s a lot of variables at play that, I think, makes people come up with the idea that we’re not enforcing it, but there’s so much misinformation the last little while," he said. "It’s frustrating."
“The government knew, has known, over and over and over again, when these people rally and when they put people’s lives, really, at risk." — NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine
Many reports of violations are made after the fact, he said. That, combined with an overworked and understaffed department, means officers aren’t able to answer every COVID-related call they receive.
And, on the other side, there’s no shortage of support for businesses in the community flouting the rules. Such as a locked Facebook group with nearly 2,000 members in southern Manitoba and beyond who share their (usually critical) views on the province’s COVID-19 response and regularly provide lists of restaurants and other businesses where mask-wearing and proof of immunization are not enforced.
The Free Press received multiple tips from concerned Winkler residents who said some local business owners had met recently and decided collectively to ignore health orders.
Mayor Martin Harder confirmed the meeting took place and said he was present, but insisted its purpose was to find a way to address business owners’ concerns of what he called the "abuse" of young employees who were trying to enforce the rules.
The solution, he said, was the creation of a sign businesses could have at the door encouraging visitors to treat staff with kindness.
"We never once said that they should not or didn’t need to follow the rules," Harder said. "The sign clearly says what they do need to do."
As gentle as the sign’s message is, there were business owners at the meeting who didn’t support the effort.
"There were some there that definitely said they were going to use it, it would help them to enforce (the health orders), and there were some there that said, ‘Well, I’ll put the sign up, but I won’t make my staff ask for identification,’" the mayor said.
And now, in practice, a sign on the window hasn’t done much to defuse the situation, an employee at a local boutique said.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous fearing backlash toward the business or her family, said she hadn’t asked the Free Press reporter to wear a mask in the store out of a sense of defeat. People who aren’t following the rules in stores often get loud. And even violent.
"They’re very negative," she said. "They yell, they swear, they spit, they refuse to stand behind the plastic shields."
“They’re very negative. They yell, they swear, they spit, they refuse to stand behind the plastic shields.” — Anonymous employee at local store
She said her teenage daughter works in a local big-box store and regularly endures verbal abuse from adults customers angry about the rules.
"I don’t know whose responsibility it is to do anything, but I don’t believe it’s the stores; it’s got to be police," the woman said, her voice shaking.
She said she has heart issues and is immunocompromised and constantly worries about her daughter’s safety.
"They’re not listening to the store employees or store owners," she said. "They do what they want."
Workers in the community are exhausted, overwhelmed and afraid, she said.
While a business in Winnipeg that takes a public pro-mask, pro-vaccine stance might alienate a small percentage of customers, in Winkler’s small-town culture where everyone knows everyone else, the effect could be devastating, she said.
"I think a lot of business owners are scared to offend people. They’re scared that at the end of this, if they’re too strict, they’re going to suffer for it for years to come," she said.
"And I think some are very fearful of that."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.