Winlaw business owner recounts nasty meeting with anti-mask customers

·5 min read

A Winlaw businessman says his staff and family members are shaken up after recent incidents with customers who refused to wear a mask.

Matt Dutoff says the incident is a sign of larger malaise in his community.

“My father-in-law said it best: ‘the lid on the top of the pot is starting to shake,’” he told the Valley Voice.

Dutoff says trouble started the afternoon of April 1, when a man and woman entered his family’s Home Hardware store in Winlaw.

“They decided they wanted to shop in our store without a mask,” he says, despite staff alerting them that they needed a mask to be inside. “Pretty much immediately they started shouting and insulting my employees. My wife was working at the time. They were charging around the store, demanding service, and being quite rude in general.”

Dutoff says the couple became increasingly belligerent, shouting and storming around the hardware store.

“I came in, explained to them it’s private property and they had to leave,” he says. “They were under the assumption it was public property and they didn’t have to go anywhere.

“There was some yelling back and forth, and some insults traded,” admits Dutoff. Finally the couple went to their car when police were called. Dutoff says they waited for a while, impatiently, then headed back towards Slocan.

“I guess they went to intercept the officer responding, flagged him down on the highway, and told him he had been assaulted in our store,” he says. Dutoff says there was a moment during the incident where the man had bumped into his much smaller wife, and yelled he had been assaulted by her.

RCMP in New Denver confirm they responded to an incident at a business in Winlaw that day.

“The customers stated that they had a medical exemption and as a result were not required to wear masks and that by refusing them service, it was a human rights violation,” a police report says. “The business held strong on their company policies and asked the customers to leave, offering to deliver the items they needed curbside.”

Police say after talking to both parties, they’re not contemplating laying charges. But they’re also putting people opposed to pandemic restrictions on notice:

“The Slocan Lake RCMP would like to remind the public that during this time masks are required inside of all public buildings and that customers need to respect these orders put in place by the Province,” they state in a release. “Additionally, regardless of one’s beliefs, the RCMP reminds the public that any business has the right to refuse service to anyone, and that regardless of medical exemptions, a store has the right to refuse service to those not wearing masks.

“Those with medical exemptions are urged to call ahead to stores to determine their policies and to learn of any concessions that may be in place for those unable or unwilling to wear a mask.”

“A lot of healing” needed

Dutoff says it’s the worst incident of anti-public-health-rule behaviour they have had since the pandemic began. He says up to this point, most locals, whether opposed to restrictions or not, have respected his family and business. However, he sees distressing signs the community is ailing.

“We had a fist fight break out in our parking lot – not COVID-related, just two local guys with a long-standing feud. People’s nerves are stretched to the limit,” says Dutoff, a fifth-generation resident of the valley. “There’s going to have to be a lot of healing in this community, when this comes to an end.

“There’s a lot of fights and arguments going on, I think I’ve lost lots of customers because of the whole pandemic rules. There’s these beliefs going back and forth, and hopefully people will get over them.”

He says the incident has left his family shaken. And partly in response, the Home Hardware in Winlaw is going to start closing on Sundays.

“A little mental health day,” he says. “Once the greenhouse closes down, we may go back to seven days a week.”

He’s also installing more security cameras. Just last week, there was another incident, where a customer refused to wear a mask, and ended up shoplifting an item from the store.

“Upon reviewing the security footage, we found that he had pocketed a $700 piece of our paint-matching system,” says Dutoff. “Thankfully, he was not wearing a mask when he entered the store, and we were able to identify him through social media.”

The item has since been returned, he says.

Deaf ears

People opposed to masks and other pandemic restrictions hold a demonstration in downtown Winlaw nearly every Saturday. After the rally April 10, two of the organizers came to talk to Dutoff about the incident with the Slocan couple.

Dutoff says he told them he thinks demonstrations like theirs – where protesters hold signs denouncing people enforcing mask laws as “Nazis” – make anger and violence more acceptable towards store owners trying to enforce the rules. He also pointed to conspiracy newspapers the anti-maskers are sharing around the community as detrimental to people’s mental health.

“They told me they would not accept the argument that they would ever encourage violence,” he says. “So I think my arguments fell on deaf ears.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice