As a visit to Facebook makes clear, not all local entrepreneurs are thrilled about asking customers to wear masks and show proof of vaccination
On August 24, Shuswap woodworker Sean Cahill started a Facebook group called BC Businesses Against Vax Pass, quickly changing the name to BC Businesses Against Health Pass. His goal, Cahill told an interviewer, was “to find a place to go have lunch...without having to divulge my personal medical history.”
In his words, the group “took off like a rocket sled on rails.” Within a week, it had more than 105,000 members and was still growing.
Hundreds of posts appeared from small B.C. businesses proclaiming they “do not discriminate”—meaning they don’t require customers to wear masks or present evidence of vaccination. A group administrator soon listed the anti-passport businesses in a phone app. They included hair salons, spas, gyms, tattoo parlours, realtors, cafés, a blues band, a Pouce Coupe pizza joint and at least one practitioner of “certified energy work and metaphysical instruction.”
Squamish filmmaker April Chandler joined the group in that first week. Chandler, who runs video production company Mephobia as well as Blue River Studios, says the tone was largely positive. “I don’t want to take people down,” she explains. “This group has level-headed people standing up for personal choice and freedom.”
In addition to her skepticism about vaccines’ effectiveness—“there’s always another variant, and another”—Chandler says she was disturbed by an incident when she accidentally crossed into the U.S. while attempting to visit Canada Customs: she was detained by U.S. Customs and swabbed. “I am registered in the FBI database now,” she says. “This is the beginning. Where will it stop?”
Group moderators warned members to keep things positive. They denied any connection to the September 1 protests that took place outside some B.C. hospitals and insisted they would delete offensive content. “We’re not anti-anything,” Cahill said. “We are pro-medical privacy, pro-Charter, pro-choice.”
But it’s not easy to police a Facebook group that’s growing faster than the Delta variant. Numerous posts spieled out paranoid conspiracies about vaccine passports as a sinister first step toward a police state. One poster promised that standing up against tyranny could earn you a “40% discount on digital marketing services” (that message accompanied by a GIF of blue-faced Mel Gibson in Braveheart, shouting “Freedoooom!”).
Another member described an encounter with a store manager: “[He] said, ‘Can’t you just wear a mask for 10 minutes?’ And I asked him if he wanted to rape me for 10 minutes too...”
There was also a heaping helping of Hitler. At one point, a meme depicting provincial health officer Bonnie Henry in a Nazi uniform was posted. “The BC Government are creating divide amongst people, like Adolph [sic] Hitler did in 1933,” said one member.
Although Cahill urged group members to remain upbeat, he also posted a PDF of a “Vaccine Notice of Liability.” The document suggested that a vaccine pass violated the Nuremberg Code (a post–Second World War convention intended to outlaw medical experimentation on humans) as well as the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of Canada.
While a parade of businesses posted messages trumpeting solidarity, at least one entrepreneur took it a step further. Kitimat jewelry artist Kelly Ruff showed off a key tag she’d designed, featuring a raised middle finger and the inscription “Here’s my vaccine passport.” Requests flooded the thread. “I shipped 100 this morning alone,” Ruff says. “Never had anything move so fast.”
Group members also discussed larger retailers. Several posts from people claiming to be Save-On-Foods employees implied that the grocer is sympathetic to the anti-mask movement. “I work at Save On and we don’t enforce customers to wear masks,” one said.
Another poster who claimed to be a Save-On employee wrote: “We were the last to do masks (government rule only). We have been told to leave people alone without masks.” A man who said he works in security at a Save-On location referred to masks as “chin diapers” and said he won’t enforce their use. (Save-On-Foods didn’t return several calls asking for comment.)
Meanwhile, London Drugs was called “evil” and “the enemy,” apparently thanks to its decision to ask employees to be vaccinated by November 1. President and COO Clint Mahlman says the chain’s policy has been widely misrepresented by opponents: “We have never said we would fire people.”
At London Drugs, new hires must now be vaccinated, while existing employees who are unvaccinated (for non-medical reasons) will need regular COVID testing. “Factual discussions are important,” Mahlman says. “We can disagree on the approach, but we should agree on the goals. Our employees are overwhelmingly happy about this policy, and customers have been thanking us. But there is a lot of nasty vilification going on right now.”
Filmmaker Chandler says she’s experienced plenty of social media hate for her stance, and that many of the group posts simply express gratitude for finding a safe space for their anti-vax views.
Meanwhile, group members are planning a future of freedom. One concern: maskless holidays. “I just got a quote for Vancouver to Manzanillo on a private jet for six of us,” a member posted, “and it was about 30K USD one way.”
Someone warned that rules for private charters are the same as for commercial flights, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm. Another post asked: “When are we all leaving?”