KITCHENER -- The message is clear for the group that gathered in Victoria Park on Sunday: they do not want to live in fear.

‘Hugs Over Masks’ events have been taking place in communities across Ontario, and the organizers of the Kitchener gathering say wearing a mask should be an individual choice rather than a mandate.

“More than anything we want to bring awareness to the truth and education about what’s taking place,” said Vladislav Sovolad, founder of Hugs Over Masks. “The point is, people don’t know the actual harmfulness of the masks.”

He adds that he’s not against masks, but is against the mandate of wearing them.

“If somebody really wants to have a personal choice of wearing a mask, it’s their choice,” said Sovolad. “I really want to make sure that people actually know the real harmed effects.”

No face coverings and limited physical distancing could be seen from the sizable crowd that gathered in Victoria Park.

“We are like-minded people, and it’s imperative, especially in this time, for us to combine our forces, for us to unite and come together,” one event attendee tells CTV News.

Sovolad has created flyers that were distributed at the gathering, which list claims from Hugs Over Masks about the negative effects of wearing a face covering.

The flyer ties wearing a mask to mental and physical health concerns as well as human trafficking.

“I think if we look to our neighbours in the south, you can see what can happen when people don’t follow public health recommendations,” said Dr. Julie Emili, Acting Associate Medical Officer of Health for the Region of Waterloo.

Face coverings are currently mandatory inside public places and on transit in Waterloo Region.

“The facts are we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we have low rates right now,” said Emili. “But we need to keep the measures in place to make sure the rates stay low.”

She adds that the public should educate themselves by relying on credible sources for information.

In a statement to CTV News, St. Mary’s Hospital says it supports the recommendations of Region of Waterloo Public Health to wear masks when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

They add that wearing masks limits the potential for COVID-19 to spread.

Public health officials say the event at Victoria Park was disappointing, while Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic says the crowd does not reflect most of the community.

“The vast majority of our residents have been doing the caring thing,” he said.

The Hugs Over Masks group and other organizations at the rally say they’re going to continue to unite other like-minded people across Canada.

“When you mandate something, you take away the freedom of choice,” said Chris Sky, creator of ‘Mothers Against Distancing.’

Children under the age of five and those unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition or disability are the only ones exempt from the face covering bylaw in Waterloo Region.

The rules around mandated masks are carried out by municipal bylaws and not by provincial or federal governments.