More than 100 attend protest in Steinbach, despite mayor's plea to stop

As protesters from the group Hugs Over Masks gathered on Saturday, Steinbach’s mayor begged them to stop, saying they’re jeopardizing the Manitoba city’s chances of reopening businesses.

Mayor Earl Funk begs organizers to stop gathering, asks them to work with the city

Protesters gathered Saturday afternoon for a rally in Steinbach, Man., organized by the group Hugs Over Masks. More than 100 people were in attendance, despite Manitoba public health restrictions prohibiting groups of more than five. (Travis Golby/CBC)

More than 100 people gathered at the city hall in Steinbach, Man., to protest COVID-19 public health restrictions on Saturday afternoon, despite a plea from the city's mayor to stop.

The group that organized the protest, Hugs Over Masks, said in an emailed statement that it's protesting the province's public health restrictions. The group claims the restrictions are stripping away their freedoms and creating mental health issues.

Earl Funk, Steinbach's mayor, said he's begging the group to stop gathering and protesting in his city. He said Steinbach and its residents have worked hard to curb the spread of COVID-19, and he's concerned the protesters' actions are ruining the city's chances of reopening businesses. 

"Please, please think of the impact that this has," Funk said. 

Protesters with signs at Saturday's rally in Steinbach, Man. The city's mayor says residents don't want these protests to happen in their city. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"Because we've worked so hard, I'd really like to see things in Steinbach open up…. I just can't stop thinking that this is going to jeopardize our chance of having things get open in Steinbach."

In November last year, Steinbach's test positivity rate hit 40 per cent. As of Saturday afternoon, only 10 active cases were reported in the city.

Funk said residents don't want the protests to happen in their community. Since November, there have been at least two protests against COVID-19 public health orders staged in Steinbach.

Funk said the protest organizers are from out of town and they have never contacted the city about their events, but he wished that they did. At Saturday's rally, at least some of the protesters came from Winnipeg and other communities. 

"Instead of organizing a protest against a restriction, I would rather see that we would organize together and find solutions to open businesses," Funk said.

CBC News asked the group Hugs Over Masks about the mayor's concerns. In an email response, the group said, "The mayor is more than welcome to attend the rally and have his concerns addressed."

RCMP vehicles were seen blocking off Reimer Avenue and creating a perimeter outside Steinbach's city hall, where the rally took place. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Manitoba RCMP were seen at the event, with RCMP vehicles blocking off Reimer Avenue and setting up a perimeter around city hall. An RCMP spokesperson did not have further information as of late Saturday afternoon.

The mayor said while he wants organizers to exercise their freedom of speech and their right to protest, he also said now is not the time. 

"This is not the view of Steinbach," said Funk. 

"The organizers have not contacted us to see how they could advocate for us. Because if they would, I would have asked them to advocate for businesses to open up in the province."