STEINBACH – As Manitoba recorded a record-high COVID-19 death toll Saturday, nearly 200 people gathered in violation of public-health orders to protest lockdown measures, mask wearing and vaccines.

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STEINBACH – As Manitoba recorded a record-high COVID-19 death toll Saturday, nearly 200 people gathered in violation of public-health orders to protest lockdown measures, mask wearing and vaccines.

An anti-mask rally in Steinbach attracted a large turnout and led to a $1,296 fine for La Broquerie Reeve Lewis Weiss, the only elected public official to speak at the event.

The rally attracted a large turnout and led to a $1,296 fine for La Broquerie Reeve Lewis Weiss, the only elected public official to speak at the event. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

The rally attracted a large turnout and led to a $1,296 fine for La Broquerie Reeve Lewis Weiss, the only elected public official to speak at the event. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I kind of felt that there was a target on my back," Weiss said after a provincial employee handed him the ticket for failing to comply with an emergency public health order. The public-health orders prohibit gatherings of more than five people.

Weiss didn't organize the Hugs Over Masks rally but said he felt it was important for him to speak at it. When asked if the fine was worth it, he said "it's always worth it to speak your mind." He acknowledged he was concerned about the possibility of the virus spreading at the rally, but no more so than any other ailment. He compared the risk to the risk of contracting COVID-19 at the event to the risk of getting in a car accident on the way home.

Signs protesting the restrictions by the provincial government were on display as vehicles rolled down Main Street in Steinbach towards the Hugs Over Masks rally. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Signs protesting the restrictions by the provincial government were on display as vehicles rolled down Main Street in Steinbach towards the Hugs Over Masks rally. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Weiss acknowledged people are dying and said he supports health-care workers, but he downplayed the seriousness of the virus and said he and others who attended the rally believe they can't trust the information being distributed by public-health officials and news media, and that they have a right not to wear masks.

"It's a terrible time, and it's not the right time for this event to have happened. It's terrible times, but when do we speak?" he said, echoing his speech to the crowd. To them, he said "It isn't a good time to have to hold a rally when people are dying around us. But what you don't realize, or many people don't realize, people are always dying around us."

A person holds up a mask and gives a thumbs-up to the passing anti-mask convoy. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

A person holds up a mask and gives a thumbs-up to the passing anti-mask convoy. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

RCMP blocked the entrance to the city's AD Penner Park after more than 100 people, many of whom referred to themselves as "freedom fighters," showed up. Officials from the provincial health and justice departments were also there to monitor the rally and make their presence known. After Weiss was fined, some attendees shouted and honked at provincial staff and reporters to go away. "Go home to the devil, you!" one man yelled as provincial officials left.

Outspoken anti-masker Gerry Bohemier spoke at the Hugs over Masks rally.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Outspoken anti-masker Gerry Bohemier spoke at the Hugs over Masks rally.

While the rally was going on, the province announced 239 new COVID-19 cases, 40 of them in the Southern Health region, which includes Steinbach. Three of the 15 COVID-19 related deaths announced Saturday — the highest daily death count Manitoba has seen so far – were men in their 70s and 80s from the Southern Health region. Nurses in Steinbach have spoken out about the city's Bethesda Regional Health Centre being over capacity with COVID-19 patients and have reported such a severe lack of space that ER patients had to be triaged while waiting in their cars outside the hospital.

That kind of scene wasn't playing out at the health centre on Saturday afternoon, but Manitoba's health minister Cameron Friesen acknowledged a day earlier that Steinbach and area "have some of the highest transmission rates right now in the whole province."

Protestors voice their opinions at the rally. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Protestors voice their opinions at the rally. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

Meanwhile, a five-minute drive away from the hospital, rallygoers listened to Christian music piped through loudspeakers affixed on a flatbed trailer and cheered as several speakers – including outspoken anti-masker Gerry Bohemier – decried shutting down churches and schools, imposing restrictive lockdown measures and mandating masks. They held signs with slogans such as "love over fear," "honk for freedom" and "the media is the virus." Many of the speakers spread conspiracy theories and espoused anti-vaccine views. A common thread among them was the idea that public-health officials and news media are fear-mongering and not doing enough to recognize the economic and mental-health consequences of lockdown.

RCMP blocked the entrance to the city's AD Penner Park after more than 100 people, many of whom referred to themselves as “freedom fighters,” showed up. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

RCMP blocked the entrance to the city's AD Penner Park after more than 100 people, many of whom referred to themselves as “freedom fighters,” showed up. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

A mother from La Broquerie who spoke to the Free Press but declined to provide her name said she attended the rally because she was "standing up for our rights to choose." She said the restrictions have been particularly hard on her two children, aged 13 and five, who have disabilities.

Ken Friesen, a truck driver from Grunthal, said his family has experienced "lots of hardship" during this pandemic. His mother-in-law asked to move out of her care home over fear of the virus spreading. But he said he doesn't believe COVID-19 is more serious than the flu and doesn't trust the public-health messages or news reports that say otherwise.

Many of the speakers spread conspiracy theories and espoused anti-vaccine views at the rally. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Many of the speakers spread conspiracy theories and espoused anti-vaccine views at the rally. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

"People are dying every day," he said. "They're dying from everything else; from suicide, depression, from being locked up."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.