Toronto store owners say they were assaulted after forcibly removing customer for not wearing mask

Zhao Guang Yu's face still shows faint bruising from the night six weeks ago when, his wife says, four men attacked him in their Toronto convenience store after she fought with a customer and physically forced her out of the store when she refused to wear a mask.

Toronto police are now seeking the public's help identifying the four men and the female customer — all around 18 years old — in connection with the alleged assault at Levol Convenience Food Mart on Dundas Street West, just south of Kensington Market in the city's downtown.

Police identified all five as suspects.

Zhao's wife, Xue Lin, says it's hard for her to listen to her own screams on video footage recorded the night of April 15 on a surveillance camera outside,

The camera captured some of the sound, but neither the fight with the customer nor the altercation with the men can be seen on camera.

Xue says she tried to shield Zhao with her body as the men battered him against an ice cream freezer.

Minutes earlier, Xue says, the couple had forced a woman out of the store for refusing to wear a mask.

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Customer claimed she was attacked 'for no reason'

The customer was with another woman and was carrying a mask in her hand, Xue said. After asking her to put on the mask several times, Xue said, she grabbed the customer to try to get her out of the store.

The customer hit her, Xue said, and the two fought as Xue and her husband pushed her toward the door.

"We [fought] each other," she said. "She hit me. I had to hit her, too."

The customer can be heard on the surveillance video saying she was hit "for no reason." Four men, regular customers Xue recognized, entered the store shortly after and started hitting her husband, Xue said.

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Xue says she felt helpless and hugged him to try to protect him.

"Four guys, tall guys," she said. "Of course, we can't do anything."

Xue said the blows her husband took knocked him to the floor. One of the men kicked his face before they left, Xue said.

Toronto Police got a call about the altercation around 9:30 p.m. and say they are continuing to investigate the alleged assault. No arrests have been made in the case.

Police describe three of the male suspects as about 5'10 with thin or slim builds. Two of them were wearing a red jacket, and one has very short hair, police said. The fourth man is described as about 5'9 with a medium build and short black hair.

The woman police are looking for is about 5'5 with a slim build and short black hair, police said.

Started requiring masks before lockdown

Zhao and Xue have insisted all their customers wear a mask since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, even before the province shut down non-essential businesses in March and imposed emergency measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

A sign posted on the store's window says customers won't be let inside without a mask and that masks can be purchased inside.

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Xue says most of her customers willingly wear masks or buy one for $1 in the store.

She says she sees masks as critical to helping reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. Her parents live downstairs from the shop, and she says she feels a responsibility to her family and customers' health.

Public health officials have encouraged people to wear masks when they can't maintain the recommended two metres of physical distance from others as a means of protecting those close by from any potential virus droplets that leave the mouth.

Altercation out of view in surveillance footage

The altercation between Xue and the customer is out of view in the surveillance video, but the footage shown to CBC by Xue captured the customer saying, "Don't touch me," and then daring the store owners to strike her, saying: "Hit me," as Xue screamed at her to get out. 

Outside the store, a woman's voice can be heard telling another person to call somebody. A sobbing woman later tells a man that store workers "attacked me for no reason."

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When the men arrive, one can be heard on the surveillance footage yelling, "Why did you hit her?" and shouting at the couple before Xue starts shrieking. Her husband can be heard yelling in apparent pain.

In a statement, Toronto police say it was reported that "while escorting the woman out, the woman slapped one of the staff members across the face and stated she would have someone come back to deal with them for having her removed."

A spokesperson said that, from a police perspective, it is generally considered reasonable to touch somebody to remove them from private property if they were directed to leave, as long as it is not excessive force. 

A 'mountain' of bruising

Xue said the day after the altercation, Zhao's face was black with bruises, with one eye "like a mountain."

"My husband stayed home [for] two weeks," she said.

He didn't want to see a doctor at the time because the hospital seemed too dangerous because of COVID-19, Xue said. 

When asked about the nature of Zhao's injuries, Toronto Police spokesperson Const. Michelle Flannery said, "victim injuries is not something we normally provide."

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Weeks later, Zhao is back to work, though he still has bruising on his face. 

Xue said an incident like this has never happened in the store before, which the couple opened in 2016. But she did say there were two previous times that she grabbed customers who wouldn't wear masks and refused to leave, then called police.

Xue says she doesn't scare easily, even when working alone at night, and usually tries to handle difficult situations herself.

But after the attack, to avoid conflict, she says, they have been keeping the door to the shop locked in the evenings and only open it to people wearing a mask. 

'We don't want more people [to] get the virus'

Xue says she and her husband will continue to insist on masks — even if it has meant losing business during the pandemic.

"We don't want more people [to] get the virus," she said. "I reduce business? Fine. I need to do my way."

Xue says she has noticed more people taking precautions against COVID-19 in recent weeks, though some people still argue against the store's mask policy.

Xue says she sometimes fills simple orders for customers while they wait outside. The store also offers free gloves for customers.

"We don't want fighting," said Xue.

"If you don't like to wear a mask ... you don't need to come in. [It's] fair to other customers, fair to us."

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