Controversy over wearing masks during COVID-19 pandemic has escalated into rage and now, death
The growing phenomenon of “mask rage” throughout North America took on heightened significance in Canada on Wednesday after a 73-year-old Ontario man was shot by police and died following a conflict over wearing a mask in a grocery store.
Following months of lockdowns, and mixed messaging from health officials and leaders on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, masks have become a flash point in the pandemic. There have been protests over mask-wearing in Canada and the U.S., and now, it appears, deadly conflicts
Last week, protesters rode Toronto public transit without masks to protest mandatory face coverings on transit. Among them was Letitia Montana, who had been removed from a Toronto hospital the weekend before for not wearing a mask.
Mask-wearing protests have been held in Texas and Utah. In Florida, anti-maskers took the extra step of handing out free grilled cheeses to diners who opted to eat at 33 & Melt, a grilled cheese bar just outside of Orlando, without masks.
Then, on Wednesday morning, Ontario Provincial police responded to a call to the Valu-Mart in Minden, in central Ontario’s cottage country. A 73-year-old man had allegedly assaulted an employee after refusing to put on a mask to enter the store.
It ended in a police confrontation and shooting near the man’s home. The Special Investigations Unit, which oversees instances where police are involved in death, serious injury or sexual assault, is investigating the incident.
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What is known so far is that it began at the Valu-Mart grocery store. “The guy just didn’t want to wear a mask,” store owner Linda Easton told the Minden Times , the local newspaper.
She told the paper he had been “pounding” on an employee after he had been offered a free face mask. Following the altercation at the Valu-Mart, the man then got into his car. He is alleged to have tried to run down a store employee, and crashed into the side of the store before getting onto the highway.
Sgt. Jason Folz, a spokesman for the Ontario Provincial Police, confirmed to the National Post on Thursday that the man had indeed attempted to swerve into an employee, but they did not see any damage to the store. Provincial police officers attempted to stop the man, but “when it was clear that he wasn’t going to stop,” they discontinued the attempt, Folz said.
Officers ran the man’s licence plate and made their way to the man’s home. Folz confirmed that tactical officers and a canine unit were called. In a brief news release, the SIU says there was an “interaction” outside the home. The SIU said two officers fired their guns. “The man was struck.”
The SIU seized a semiautomatic rifle and a pistol from the man’s home. The man was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. As of Thursday morning, investigators were still attempting to reach the man’s next-of-kin before releasing his name.
This is the first known death related to mask-wearing in Canada, but not the first incident of mask rage. In early July, a video circulated online of a man in a T&T Supermarket in Mississauga raging against staff members.
“Where did we get our Wuhan communist virus? From China. From you guys,” the man can be heard saying. On Thursday, Peel Regional Police announced they’d laid charges of causing a disturbance against John McCash, 48, from Mississauga; his first court date is Sept. 25.
There have been multiple incidents south of the border, where wearing masks has been highly controversial. In Michigan, there have been two fatalities related to mask-wearing conflicts.
In early May, in Flint, Mich., a security guard was shot dead after insisting that a woman wear a mask. She left, and then two men returned to the store and are alleged to have killed the guard.
Then, on Tuesday, a police deputy in Michigan, shot and killed a man who was suspected of stabbing another customer at Quality Dairy in Dimondale, a town about an hour-and-a-half west of Detroit. Authorities said a 77-year-old man at the store got into a disagreement with Sean Ruis, 43, over wearing masks. Ruis, who was not wearing a mask, is alleged to have stabbed the man before fleeing. When police tracked him down, he pulled a knife and was shot dead.
Seth Gillihan, a clinical psychologist and author of The CBT Deck , asked in a recent Psychology Today article, “What is it about a seemingly neutral piece of protective gear that can be so inflammatory?”
In an interview with the National Post, Gillihan said there’s a political element to the controversy. “There is this kind of primal rage people are feeling around what they perceive as a violation of their personal freedom without, in my view, a realistic recognition of where our freedom ends and where responsibility begins,” Gillihan said. “A lot of people do think like…’How dare they tell me what to do — I’ll tell them what to do.'”
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization and various health authorities sowed confusion with unclear direction on mask-wearing, not settling on a recommendation until June. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control now recommends that “people wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Some Canadian jurisdictions, such as Quebec, and local municipalities in Ontario, have recently made masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces. But there has been reluctance in other parts of the country to take the step of legislating mask-wearing.
UFCW Canada Local 1006A, which represents 25,000 retail workers in Ontario, said there should be masks in all indoor public spaces, and they have concerns about workers being subject to abuse.
“Since the beginning of COVID-19 our union has been advocating for a security presence at stores to ensure proper protocols like mask-wearing and physical distancing are upheld,” said an emailed statement from union spokesman Joel Thelosen.
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