On Monday, November 23, new lockdown measures went into effect in Toronto and Peel. The province has been seeing alarming numbers of Covid-19 cases from these two regions specifically, with overall daily case counts well over the 1,000 mark. In response, the province shut down all non-essential businesses, prohibited indoor gatherings, and closed restaurants, bars, and sports centres until December 21. However, one business owner decided that these restrictions weren’t going to stop him from opening his restaurant to the public.
Adam Skelly, the owner of Adamson BBQ, took to Instagram on Tuesday morning to let his customers know that he’ll be opening his restaurant for dining in, against the province’s restrictions. People flocked to the restaurant, most not wearing masks, eager to eat and snub the province’s rules in the process. By-law officers arrived late to the scene and left without closing the establishment down or issuing any penalties for disobeying the lockdown orders. Finally, on Tuesday evening, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health ordered the restaurant to close. Yet, the next morning, Skelly once again opened his restaurant, joined by a large group of protestors to support his flagrant violation of the law. Police once again arrived on the scene and shut down the restaurant, and nine charges were laid against the business owner.
Early Thursday morning, police changed the locks to the restaurant but let Skelly into his restaurant from the back in an “act of good faith”—which was subsequently broken by Skelly when he broke down an interior wall to get to his kitchen and serve food to the mass of protestors outside. Three days of violating provincial and municipal health restrictions culminated in Skelly and another man’s arrest, and Skelly facing 13 charges and fines, potentially totalling thousands of dollars.
I wish I could say that is where the saga ends, with one man’s actions that jeopardized an entire community facing the consequences. However, Adam Skelly isn’t the main problem in this story—as much as he seems to want to be the centre of attention. No, the real issue is the protestors that flocked to the barbecue joint and made it into a symbol for anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine ideologies. Some of the protestors are even reportedly neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The protestors claimed that opening the restaurant was a part of Adam Skelly’s freedom of speech and within his right. They argued that their rights were being infringed upon by the provincial government because of its Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. They blamed the media for “biased reporting,” chanting “CBC sucks” and “fake news” at reporters, some even harassed journalists on the scene. Even after Skelly’s arrest, protestors moved to demonstrating outside the Premier’s home. These actions are reminiscent of what is happening to a larger degree in the United States. Still, they do remind us that no ideology can be stopped at the border.
I call their beliefs an ideology purposefully. It is an ideology that believes that individual rights and privileges are more important than the common good. What this ideology conveniently forgets is that no right is absolute. The first thing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees to its citizens is that “the rights and freedoms set out in [the Charter are] subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
In other words, rights are not unlimited and absolute as some claim. They have justifiable limits because one person’s rights end where another person’s rights begin. In our current situation, I would argue that a global pandemic that has killed almost 12 thousand people in Canada and more than one million people worldwide is a justifiable reason to limit an individual’s freedom of speech.
However, I do sympathize with one point that is being raised in this debate. Small businesses are being disproportionately harmed with this second lockdown. Big corporations, such as Costco and Wal-Mart, are allowed to stay open and sell essential products like groceries and earn a profit from their eateries. This arrangement gives these corporations a significant advantage over smaller businesses in a climate where they already have a lot of power and resources in their favour. Premier Doug Ford said he sympathized with small business owners, but sympathy isn’t enough. The provincial government needs to do a better job at managing this pandemic. They also need to provide greater support to those most affected by the virus and the restrictions that follow.
Nevertheless, financial hurt, ideology, and individual rights are not justifiable reasons to shirk lockdown restrictions and endanger the lockdown’s very legitimacy and severity. In the end, our collective right to life and health should trump some people’s right to freedom of speech.