A mayor threatened and an Ontario town divided over wearing masks

The Ontario farm belt town of Aylmer is becoming increasingly divided among those who refuse to wear a mask during the pandemic and those who wish they would.

Aylmer, Ont., has become the backdrop for a faceoff between 2 sides of a virus culture clash

A sign from public health authorities telling people that face coverings are mandatory hangs in a shop window in Aylmer, Ont. The sign also asks for understanding if someone chooses not to wear one. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Aylmer is a small town in southwestern Ontario divided by a line: on one side, those who refuse to wear a mask, and on the other, those who wish they would. 

Masks have become such a flashpoint in this normally quiet farm town that tensions over their use have grown beyond an exchange of the usual dirty looks or critical words.

"I will tell you I've been threatened and I don't appreciate that," Aylmer Mayor Mary French told CBC News on Tuesday, declining to describe the nature of the threats or who made them. 

"My family's safety is at risk, so I have to be cautious about what I say, but I don't appreciate it," she said. "I wish people would calm down. We're not trying to take anybody's rights away from them."

Aylmer has become backdrop in culture clash over virus

Aylmer, Ont., has the some of the lowest vaccination rates in the province (Colin Butler/CBC)

French was criticized by some demonstrators after she declared a state of emergency in Aylmer on Monday in anticipation of two opposing protests that have been widely reported to be taking place this weekend in the parking lot of the town's arena. 

On one side, demonstrators who oppose mandatory face coverings will rally, while at the other, a second group of protesters will rally for mandatory face coverings at the same time. 

French said she declared the state of emergency because she and the town's officials worry the raw emotion of the simmering culture clash between those who wear masks and those who do not might boil over. 

"We do not want anyone to get hurt or injured or anything drastic like that. We are not prohibiting rallies; that's not my job as a mayor. All I'm trying to do is make sure we have resources in place so that if there is a huge crowd of people, we can call on the provincial government so it's done safely."

Local businesses trying to stay neutral in debate

Betty Teichorb is the owner of the Buttermilk Soap Company in downtown Aylmer, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Whether the state of emergency has left anyone feeling more at ease is a matter of debate, since most businesses on the town's main street told CBC News they didn't want to go on the record about this weekend's duelling protests for fear of potentially alienating customers on either side. 

"I have a wonderful clientele," said Betty Teichorb, owner of the Butter Me Up Soap Company in downtown Aylmer, who requires customers to wear masks by order of local public health authorities.

"They always wear their masks. Everyone's very respectful that way." 

That same respect isn't always captured on social media, Teichorb said. The soapmaker said she's seen the debate over masks take on a growing animosity from both sides on social media, an ideological fray that she, as a business owner, wants to remain far above. 

Some see masks as an incursion on personal liberties

A family wearing masks walks by a row of Muskoka chairs in downtown Aylmer, Ont., on Tuesday. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"I don't comment on any of it. I just let people know it's safe to come in and shop and I recently put out a sign that says 'let's just be kind to one another.'"

"I think a lot of it is people get themselves so riled up and they say something they normally would not say and they don't really mean it."  

Kimberly Neudorf, the organizer of this weekend's protest against mandatory masks, did not agree to an interview with CBC News, but she did email a copy of a written statement on Tuesday titled "Aylmer Express interview," which is the town's local newspaper. 

In it, she said the decision not to wear a mask is seen by many as an act of rebellion against what they see as the state's incursion on their personal liberties, while others choose not to wear one because it places a disproportionate burden on those who have phobias about breathing obstructions or people with certain lung conditions or disabilities. 

'They're dead wrong'

Bill Deane says he plans to attend a counter demonstration this weekend scheduled for the same time and place as a rally against mandatory face coverings in Aylmer, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"They're dead wrong," said Bill Deane, who said he plans to attend the counter protest. "Why? Because I want people to realize, wear a mask — it's for everybody's benefit and it's healthy, contrary to what some of these other people are saying."

Dean said he believes the simmering tensions between the two sides probably won't boil over on the weekend, but there's always a possibility. 

"You never know," he said.  "We'll just voice our opinions. "If those people are smart, they won't conflict [with] the people who are pro-mask."