Masks required at Black Lives Matter solidarity march, but health officials worry COVID-19 could spread
KITCHENER -- A peaceful solidarity march scheduled for Wednesday in downtown Kitchener has public health officials concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19.
The KW Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter was organized to bring people together to show solidarity against racial injustice.
Organizer Salem Debs says the march is in response to anti-Blackness and police brutality around the world.
"I know we've seen it predominantly in the States, it's also been happening in Toronto. We are highlighting and bringing voice to the violence towards George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Regis (Korchinski-Paquet) from Toronto, as well as so many other voices," she says.
"There's many voices that we've heard of and there's many voices that we haven't heard of."
George Floyd died last week after a white police officer kneeled on his neck, despite his complaints that he couldn't breathe and was in pain.
Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in February by two white men who claimed they had been pursuing him because they believed he was involved in break-ins in the neighbourhood. No arrests were made in that case until May, when a video of the shooting was sent to a local radio station and state agents took over the case.
In Toronto, the Special Investigations Unit is investigating the death of Korchinski-Paquet, who died after falling from a balcony.
The woman's mother said last week that she had called police to the apartment and asked them to take her daughter to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
"And my daughter ended up dead. So I don't understand," Claudette Beals-Clayton said.
Debs says that she hopes the solidarity march will act as "a catalyst for our non-black community members to start to become anti-racist and to start to work to educate themselves to understand the institutionalized racism and to understand the issues that are happening specifically in our community to create change."
It's not the message that has regional officials worried—it's the numbers.
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 3,400 people had responded "going" to the event on Facebook, with another 6,500 people interested.
During a media briefing on Tuesday, Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang noted how important the solidarity march was, but also reminded people that it does go against some public health guidelines.
"Our citizens have the right to peaceful protest and this is a very important matter," Dr. Wang said.
"There continues to be a provincial order in place restricting gatherings of more than five people and there is a public health reason for that."
She acknowledged that organizers of the KW Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter had asked people to wear masks and maintain physical distancing, but said that the more people attend, the more difficult maintaining those measures can be.
Dr. Wang called a gathering of this size "high-risk."
Debs says that she hadn't expected the march to get the traction it did, but says she's grateful that it has.
"When I first organized and posted this march, I said that, 'if 30 people show up, I'm happy,' that it really wasn't about the numbers, it was about creating impact," she says.
"To our surprise, within 24 hours, it looks like we have more than possibly 5,000 or 6,000 people that may be either showing up virtually and/or in person to contribute to this cause."
From the get-go, she says that personal protective equipment was top of mind. Debs says that organizers took extra time and precautions in ensuring that the demonstration adheres to public health guidelines where possible.
"We thought a lot about it, as many organizers have around the world. We thought about what the impact would be, and that's the reason why we actually didn’t do an anti-racism march earlier, which is something we wanted to do," she says.
The group says that masks are mandatory for whoever comes to the march. Debs says that there will be a table where those who don't have masks will be able to get one there before the march begins.
She says that volunteers have donated hundreds of masks and gloves. Debs also says that they are being careful to make sure that people only march in groups of five or less.
Despite the risk, Debs feels that an event like this is for Waterloo Region is important.
"We want to make sure that our community understands that this is not an issue that is happening just in America or just in larger cities. It is absolutely happening in our communities in terms of systemic racism," she says.
Regional Chair Karen Redman also acknowledged that people have the right to peaceful protest, and suggested that, despite the gathering breaking the five-person emergency order, police would be attending only to keep the peace.
"My understanding is that people will not be on hand to write tickets but they will be on hand to make sure that it's peaceful and that there are no infiltrators or agitators, people truly are there to express their solidarity for Black Lives Matter," Redman said during the media briefing.
Police Chief Bryan Larkin issued a community message on Tuesday afternoon, too, saying in part that anyone attending the march will "have the full support of your Police Service."
Still, she said that holding such a gathering during a pandemic is "very, very concerning," saying that public health officials are concerned about the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 stemming from the event.
Redman also acknowledged that the decision for those who want to attend may be a complicated one.
She says that this is a convergence "of two huge issues: one of them is the pandemic that we're all living through, and the other are very serious allegations and a demonstration that we need to be inclusive, we need to not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind."
Redman encouraged people to consider the live stream option of the march in order to still participate in solidarity.
On Tuesday afternoon, the heads of Waterloo Region's council issued a joint statement encouraging people to participate virtually, but also acknowledging that for some, it may be too difficult.
"We recognize that for some, the pain and trauma of recent events can only be healed through community grieving; and for that, we appreciate and thank event organizers for their diligence in advising those planning to attend in-person on the need to utilize masks, maintain physical distancing, and stay away if experiencing any COVID-19 like symptoms," the statement reads in part.
Debs echoes the online component of the march, and encourages people to consider that option too, especially if they're feeling unwell.
"You can watch it on the Black Lives Matter Waterloo Region Facebook page, and watch it from home," she says. "We want everybody to be included, whether you are staying at home and you're going to watch it virtually, or you feel that you can participate and still maintain a sense of safety and social distancing while you're there."
The march is scheduled to start at 5 p.m., leaving from Gaukel and Joseph Streets in Kitchener on Wednesday.
Debs says that she and the organizers are deeply grateful for the community has stepped up to offer support in whatever way they have been able to.