Baked and Battered co-owner Colby Marcellus said a strong majority of people have been following the rules put in place at the Haliburton restaurant due to COVID-19.

The business opted not to open indoor dining with stage three of reopening July 17, keeping to takeout and patio. But that has led to friction and harassment from some customers, prompting Marcellus to make a plea on social media.

“Our staff have endured being berated, lectured, harassed and even publicly humiliated by customers angry that we aren’t fully open, or that we don’t rearrange seating for them, thus compromising safe social distancing,” Marcellus wrote in a Facebook post.

“They do not deserve being disrespected for doing their jobs and keeping you safe.”

Concern has risen about the few who oppose public health rules after an incident at the Minden Valu-mart July 15. Police said a man refused to wear a mask and assaulted an employee. The man later died in a police altercation in Dysart.

Marcellus said although the conflicts at his restaurant have related to social distancing rather than mask use, the story has added to the discomfort staff feel approaching unruly customers. “This really is a fairly sensitive social issue and we never know what the folks are dealing with,” Marcellus said. “We are not social workers. We are not police. We’re not training in de-escalation and (co-owner Craig Gordon) and I, have the safety of staff in mind when we’re instructing them on how to approach the issue.”

The Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit mandated businesses have policies requiring masks indoors. But the mandate is educationally focused and offers exemptions. The health unit has said mask refusers should not be confronted or denied service.

Communications officer Bill Eekhof said it is hard to comment on the July 15 incident. But the health unit has regularly quoted Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer: “be kind, be calm, be safe.”

“The current COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone,” Eekhof said. “Many of us may feel stressed, challenged and on edge.”

Mandate under scrutiny

The tragic event has caused people to question the pressure employees are under enforcing mask use.

Ian Duncombe is a mental health worker trained in de-escalation originally from Haliburton, who worked at a GTA hospital as a screener for three-and-a-half months during the pandemic. He said the Valu-mart incident concerned him, after relying on his specialized training to manage the occasional person who protested the rules at his job.

It is “something that takes a little more training and a little more expertise,” Duncombe said, adding there are people who will take gentle encouragement the wrong way. “People that come through, who are distressed people, you’re setting up a conflict.”

He said the rules should be black and white for the inevitable disputes that come.

“It would give everybody that reference,” Duncombe said. “If it’s a gray area and you’re starting to fumble around with different facts, different ideas, if they know they can get through anyway, what’s to prevent them from bullying their way in?”

Marcellus said they have provided staff with a script to follow and can ask people to leave if needed. They also have a dedicated person to disinfect tables and watch the crowd.

He said the mask messaging from public health has been a “little inconsistent at times” and he would have liked the mask order to come sooner, though he is thankful it is here now.

“We appreciate the challenges they’re also facing in trying to keep folks safe,” Marcellus said. “We’re all going to make mistakes as we make our way through the summer – including them, and we all need to give each other a bit of latitude.”

Marcellus’s initial Facebook post attracted more than 100 supportive comments.

“I love this community,” he said. “It made us feel appreciated and it made us feel safe.”

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