Winkler’s chief of police issued a warning this weekend to residents intending to interfere with COVID-19 health order enforcement and lamented that "drug traffickers and career criminals are more respectful" toward officers than those refusing to wear masks.
A 951-word appeal by Winkler Police Service chief Ryan Hunt was posted Saturday evening to the force’s social media accounts after officers responded to at least two disputes related to masks earlier this month in the Pembina Valley community.
Winkler Police said in late August a woman who photographed customers not wearing masks inside a store was followed by a fellow customer out of the business.
As the woman was driving, police said the man attempted to run her off the road with his vehicle. Police continue to investigate.
In another incident, officers were called to a local store to respond to a dispute involving two men, one of whom was not wearing a face mask. Police say a man who was wearing a mask pushed the unmasked shopper with his cart and cursed at him. No one was charged.
"Something has to change. The anger and resentment that we are seeing in our community are unacceptable," Hunt wrote in his appeal, which has been shared nearly 1,500 times on Facebook.
"We are better than this. This great community did not become great by acting the way we currently are. We are allowed to have different opinions but we should not let them divide us."
A request for an interview with Hunt was not returned by deadline on Sunday.
Hunt described a community that is fractured, with residents increasingly coming into conflict over differing positions on COVID-19 public health orders and immunization.
A recent report by the Free Press revealed compliance with public health orders, which require people to wear masks in indoor public places and to provide proof of immunization to dine-in at restaurants, was non-existent at a number of Winkler establishments.
Some business owners have chosen not to enforce orders to avoid confrontation with hostile customers, who have reportedly spit and hurled verbal abuse at employees.
According to the province, just 40.7 per cent of eligible Winkler residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19; in the surrounding Stanley health district, 23.7 per cent of the population has been vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the encompassing Southern Health-Santé Sud region has the highest rate of COVID-19 infection per capita in the province.
In his statement, Hunt singled out a local social media group that he said encouraged people to gather and confront enforcement officials who are enforcing public health orders or issuing tickets.
"If they try to hinder enforcement officials in any way — even just by restricting their movement — those involved would still be arrested for obstructing a peace officer," Hunt warned. "If they touch or threaten enforcement officials, they will be arrested for assaulting a peace officer.
"Anyone choosing to participate will be held accountable for their actions and will be required to justify their actions in criminal court."
Hunt encouraged community members to follow public health orders as the best way to get through "this difficult time," and said people who choose to flout orders should not be surprised or angry if they receive a ticket.
"You were well aware of the consequences when you made your decision not to follow the health order," Hunt said.
"Accept the ticket, you always have the option of contesting the ticket in court — that is your right. It is concerning to realize that drug traffickers and career criminals are more respectful to law enforcement than people who decide not to wear a mask."
A request for an interview with Justice Minister Cameron Friesen — who is also MLA for the Morden-Winkler constituency — on Sunday was not accommodated.
In an emailed statement, Friesen said Manitobans are reminded to follow public health orders and respect businesses doing their part to protect people from the spread of COVID-19.
"I commend the Winkler Police Service for the work they continue to do to engage with the community, keep people safe and build trust. Enforcement officials will continue to work with businesses to provide guidance on public health orders," Friesen said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.