Adam Skelly said he was acting in the name of liberty when he defied the rules and opened his Toronto barbecue joint this week. He claimed the government trampled on his rights when it imposed a 28-day ban on indoor dining at bars and restaurants. He said he was fighting for the freedom of all Canadians to choose where to go, what businesses to visit and who to invite to their homes. Holding his three-year-old son in his arms, he said, “I’m fighting for him.”
Fortunately, most people will see his protest for what it is: a dangerous political stunt. Mr. Skelly ignored not just the ban on indoor dining but also an explicit order to close his doors from the city’s public-health chief. His restaurant in the suburb of Etobicoke was open for a couple of days as the police dithered over how to shut it down. Dozens of diners came inside. Many more gathered outside, cursing the media, waving placards about the threat of communism or dancing to Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up (“Stand up for your rights”).
Toronto Mayor John Tory was dead on – Mr. Skelly was showing his disrespect not just for the law but also for his fellow citizens, putting their lives at risk by encouraging them to gather and dine together at the height of a pandemic. Premier Doug Ford added, “People are dying, because of COVID-19. And he just wants to say, ‘Forget it,’ and have everyone down there? It’s absolutely irresponsible and ridiculous.”
Authorities finally took action late in the week. They had the locks changed on the restaurant. Mr. Skelly now faces a variety of charges. On Thursday afternoon, police led him away in handcuffs.
But even if it fizzles, his protest underlined a growing tendency to second guess the officials who are guiding Canada’s response to COVID-19. After nine months of the coronavirus, many Canadians are fed up with following the rules. Their frustration is growing as restrictions tighten in the midst of the second wave.
Even the most law-abiding people have questions about the rules, many of which seem unfair and illogical. Why do small businesses such as Mr. Skelly’s have to close when big-box outlets stay open, reaping big gains as thousands of bars, restaurants and shops face ruin? What harm could it do to let families gather in small groups for Christmas festivities?
As understandable as those feelings may be, this is not the time to be an armchair quarterback. The country faces a grave health crisis. The virus once again threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Just about every jurisdiction is bringing in tougher rules.
Government authorities have to make difficult, often agonizing decisions. If they lock down hard, they risk pushing businesses into the abyss and putting countless people out of work. If they don’t lock down hard enough, infections could surge out of control.
They won’t always make the right call. They are human, like all of us. A tough report this week from Ontario’s Auditor-General said that the province’s response to the virus was “disorganized and inconsistent.” But they are doing their best in a fast-changing, often confusing environment.
When they delay bringing in tougher rules, it isn’t because they are slaves to business interests – a charge that has been flung at Mr. Ford – but because they are justifiably worried about the effect on the lives of the people they serve. When they crack down, it isn’t because they have some diabolical scheme to crush human liberty but because they are worried about the spread of a deadly virus.
It won’t do for all of us to play at being medical officers of health, deciding we know better than the highly qualified individuals that are advising governments on how to act. Look at Mr. Skelly’s video remarks about testing and positivity rates and you get an idea where this leads. We don’t want a barbecue guy with a backwards ball cap making health policy.
No one would have had a problem if Mr. Skelly just led a campaign against the rule that closed his restaurant. The freedom to question and challenge our officials is fundamental, even in an emergency. We have a perfect right to protest against the laws they bring in to fight the virus – but not to break them. Mr. Skelly chose to break them. He should pay the price.
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