Less Organized, Still Misinformed; COVID Skeptics Gather Downtown Again

Less than 24 hours after the Provincial government announced stricter lockdown measures, including new police powers and the closure of playgrounds, there was a requisite response from Guelph’s small but vocal group of skeptics. They say they’re not-anti-mask, but they are anti-lockdown, vaccine hesitant, and that they think the government is somehow both tyrannical and incompetent at the same time.

The protest commenced in the Baker Street parking lot behind the shops along Quebec Street. Slowly, 20 people arrived there around the noon hour, and among them were some of the regular faces at these gatherings including Dave Driver and SheLaw Hunter. There was not much in the way of formal organization, so once there were enough people to make a good march of it, the group set forth through the downtown to Market Square.

A lack of organization was even more apparent once every one arrived in Market Square. As time wore on, the site of two dozen people gathered together in front of City Hall drew more attention, but things stalled as a couple of the leaders of the march tried to figure out how to start the formal protest. Until then, people gathered in small groups, maskless  and less than two-metres apart, talking about their various grievances with public health, the police, and all levels of government.

Eventually, a woman named Eva tried to get people’s attention. Another woman named Dora was going to speak, but she did not want her image captured by the members of the media present. The point was made that this was a public square, monitored by a camera on the top floor of the City Hall building, but Eva, who herself refuses to be identified by name or in any image, was undeterred. It’s worth noting that Eva is connected somehow to Vaccine Choice Canada, an organization that spreads conspiracy theories about different vaccines, and that she herself claims a medical exemption to mask wearing.

The media present relented and said that they would not film Dora or take her picture, so Dora was able to begin a lengthy, off-the-cuff speech that contained a number of misleading statistics and outright misinformation. She claimed to be a frontline worker who helps “families that are struggling”, and that she could lose her job if her employers found out she was at this gathering, or ones like it. Dora called it “a symptom of the times.”

“I think I’m here mostly for the fact that we need to protect our children,” Dora said. “I mean, there seems to be a lack of care amongst the adults in this world, they seem to be following the narrative, they’re not using their critical thinking skills, they’re calling people like us conspiracy theorists, and they’re ready to line up your children to get a vaccine.”

In fact, none of the COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for children in Canada. According to the Government of Canada’s own webpage on vaccine information, only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for people 16 years and older, while both the Moderna and AstraZeneca shots have been approved for all those 18 and over. Further, the AstraZeneca vaccine is right now being given only to people over 55.

That wasn’t all. Dora said that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved the vaccines, which they have. She also said that there’s a zero per cent chance of kids dying from the virus, and while there is an exceptionally low chance of children dying of COVID-19, there have been at least two COVID deaths in Ontario, in children under 19, since the start of the pandemic, which is not zero.

Dora continued saying that she had studied trauma, and that the COVID restrictions and the closure of schools was tantamount to child abuse. Now the crowd was really riled up.

“I have kids approaching me saying ‘I’m scared, I’m scared of taking the vaccine. My parents are pressuring me to take it because they want me to go to school, but I don’t want to take it,'” she explained, and again, children under 16 are not presently authorized to receive any of the three available COVID vaccines. “Kids are intuitive, and what we do as adults is that we tell them that the reality is not real. We have to start respecting them as individuals and actually care about their future.”

We then went down a list of various COVID-related grievances from mental health, to the effect on small businesses, to the infringement on rights and freedoms, and eventually, some good old-fashioned Trudeau-bashing.

“Justin Trudeau says the other day – this huge loser, the epitome or privilege – so he goes, ‘Listen, we’re not going to ease restrictions,” Dora said incredulously. “We’re going to continue wearing masks, we’re going to continue social distancing and we’re going to have to continue sacrificing our rights, even though the majority of people who want to get vaccinated will be the vaccinated?”

Apparently, Dora had watched an episode of the Tucker Carlson show from Fox News last week, because the host, who’s frequently cited for passing not just COVID misinformation but white nationalist ideology, was similarly incensed.

In his commentary, Carlson’s criticism was focused on White House chief medical advisory Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s been trying to promote the continuation of COVID precautions like masking after individuals are vaccinated until herd immunity is achieved. Carlson used Fauci’s advise as a way to question the efficacy of the vaccines, and then tagged Justin Trudeau for a comment he made in Question Period that same day.

Trudeau, while being questioned about the vaccine rollout, said that vaccines were just part of a COVID mitigation strategy. “We know for example that the U.K. is ahead of just about everybody else on vaccinations and yet they maintain very strong restrictions and are facing a very serious third wave,” Trudeau said. Although he got some heat in the U.K. media for taking their current COVID outlook out of context, it’s worth noting that he was talking about the present, not the future.

The misinformation was coming so fast it was hard to keep up. Dora said that there was no evidence that COVID was being spread asymptomatically, which may be a reference to paper published by University of Florida researchers last December that looked at household spread, not community spread, and found that one-person in a household is more likely to spread the virus to another non-infected person in that same household if they’re symptomatic. Politifact rated the claim that this study says there’s no asymptomatic spread as “mostly false.”

“You never go on the media and hear them say, ‘Okay, how about your vitamin D intake? How about zinc? How about vitamin C? How about human connection and touch?'” Dora asked rhetorically. One woman yelled out “hydroxychloroquine” as a supplement to the list of “alternative” COVID therapies, none of which have been proven to have any effect on preventing or treating the virus.

“I believe in reason. I believe in logic,” Dora said emphatically. This wasn’t even five minutes into Dora’s speech. The gathering would continue for another hour.

For the most part, the protestors were allowed to wallow in their misinformation and conspiracies. One older man in a mask, who said he was a volunteer at a long-term care home, took exception with the gathering, and he was initially met with hostility from many people in the crowd, but a few urged calm, and asked everyone to listen to a contrarian voice.

One of those voices was William McKay. He and his father Alexander, immediately noticeable dressed in kilts, were more moderate in their stance, and said that they were interested in having conversations.

“The conversation should be geared towards choice; government has taken away our choice, and we’re just asking for it back,” the younger McKay said. “Sicknesses has been around since people. We have the flu, we have the common cold, so treat it like that. If you don’t want the common cold, don’t go to places where people are sick.”

McKay, and his softer touch, would eventually become a leading voice at the protest even though he initially came to observe. It was McKay that rallied those attending to focus, talk about next steps, and try to develop a direction for the movement. It was eventually agreed that there would be another march, the third in as many weeks, next Saturday, and McKay encouraged everyone attending to bring one other person.

It was also McKay that tried to bring the protest back to its original intent, the protection and promotion of small businesses in the wake of new COVID lockdowns and restrictions. McKay went around the circle to see if there were any small business owners attending, but there weren’t that many. One person had their own photography business, another person was a private school teacher. The McKays work at the Royal Garrison, an axe throwing and archery course on Essex Street.

Unity is always hard to achieve in groups like these. It was clear that some were concerned about businesses, others have long been voices of skepticism about vaccines, healthcare, or the government. When one man tried to be a voice of unity, but found that the crowd was not so willing to follow his lead.

“I have a voice and that’s what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to stop our voice,” he said noting that everyone had a reason to speak up, whether it was about their business or not being able to see their grandparents.

“Join the next person who’s also fighting and get that momentum going, because then we can start tweaking things and start making a nice, vibrant life,” he added. “And after we can go back to no lockdown rules, we need to start looking after the natural world, we’ve got a climate crisis, for Christ’s sake!”

“No we don’t,” scoffed one woman as others laughed. She was the same woman pushing  hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment.

The gathering would often ebb and flow like this. There were moments where one speaker had the attention of everyone present, and then people would drift off into their own conversations. In the shadow of City Hall, there were only a handful of times that things got explicitly political.

“Last night’s the first time [Mayor Cam] Guthrie said something I agree with, he’s going to investigate the constitutionality [of the orders],” one man said.

He was referring to a tweet Guthrie had sent out on Friday night about the new provincial order that police could randomly spot check people on foot and in cars to find out why they’re not at home. “I’m checking our Charter out on that one. I’m concerned about this & we’re reviewing it,” Guthrie said. “Either way, we’re not going to be policing our way out of this pandemic, that’s for sure.”

A few in the crowd took it was a sign that Guthrie was starting to come around to their point of view. As for the police, a Guelph Police Services cruiser was spotted at least twice, once shortly after the start of the gathering when a police car drove down Carden Street, and again near the end of the gathering driving up Wilson Street.

Only one person claimed to have felt the long arm of the law protesting COVID. Sitting across the road from City Hall on Carden Street is Jeremy, who explained that he’s been sitting that spot all week and blasting music on a portable loud speaker pointed at 1 Carden. He was set up in Market Square, but he said that he was “trespassed” off City property.

“Where else am I going to sit, man? If you’re going to complain anywhere, complain to City Hall,” Jeremy said. “These restrictions are bullshit. The kids are sick, they’re going through stress, some want to kill themselves, it’s not good man.”

He then takes out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and points at the health warning. “If this warning doesn’t scare me, COVID ain’t gonna scare me,” he said before looking up at the cloudy sky. “It’s a beautiful day to be doing this stuff that’s for sure.

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