Lakeside Park Beach, St. Catharines. MIRIAM HAN

Reporting during COVID-19 has its challenges

STAY SAFE. STAY HEALTHY. Beach closes at dusk.” That was the message on the lonely sign at the edge of the Lakeside Park Beach parking lot in St. Catharines. Standing near it, I surveyed the crowd of beachgoers. For 7:30 on a Wednesday evening during a July heatwave, the turnout was impressive. The parking lot was full, and a steady stream of people of all ages were heading towards the water, carrying coolers, towels, and beach toys.

My task as a reporter seemed relatively simple—write an article about social distancing at the beach. I had prepared my notepad, pen, camera. As I stepped onto the sand already sticky with sweat, I put on the latest addition to my reporting arsenal: a face mask.

Since the pandemic began, wearing a mask during assignments has changed my interactions with others. Instead of approaching with a friendly smile and open expression, I am now merely a pair of eyes above a square of cloth. I have had to pay close attention to how I speak and gesture. Using a bulky zoom lens (to maintain social distancing) also makes my presence more conspicuous.

Despite this, I was optimistic as I headed onto the beach. People were laughing and chatting, throwing frisbees, and unfurling towels. Groups seemed to be more than two metres apart. In a time of negative news and uncertainty, and after weeks of lockdown, I understood the need to enjoy some freedom on a summer evening.

There were more safety signs closer to the shore. They repeated the message to “STAY HEALTHY, STAY SAFE,” as well as to not touch surfaces, maintain two metres of social distancing, and to stay home if one was feeling sick.

As I got closer to the water, the heat seemed to seal the mask to my face. However, the true discomfort came from the realization that I was the only person at the beach wearing one. While many beachgoers were friendly and continued to enjoy themselves, the longer I lingered on the beach the more I realized my journalist gear was starting to attract glances of annoyance, suspicion or a certain rueful acknowledgement—my mask was a reminder to all that COVID-19 was, unfortunately, still around.

It was also increasingly clear that the beach was crowded, and the social distancing inconsistent. While numerous groups had placed their towels far apart, many beachgoers who were strolling on the beach did not social distance, even though there was ample room to do so. Despite the closure of the playground, carousel, and shaded picnic tables, people were still gathered, some in groups of more than ten.

One father let his young son play on some of the playground equipment, despite the numerous signs warning that the playground was closed. He said that he brought his son to the beach once every few weeks and that he had no concerns about safety despite hundreds of people around him not wearing masks.

A father and his son using a closed play area. MIRIAM HAN

“This coronavirus is just like the flu,” he said with a large friendly smile as he patted his son on the head. “If you get it then you get it, it just happens. We only wear our masks at church, right buddy?”

The next person I approached was not nearly so welcoming. A tall, bald man, who seemed the leader of a group of 20, already bristled as I approached.

“No pictures. No questions. Please go,” he said. Sensing that the heat wasn’t doing favours for anyone’s mood, I thanked him and retreated back to the beach. I wondered how the interaction would have gone if I, like the rest of the beach, had not been wearing a mask.

Another beachgoer was also wary as I approached, and asked that I not take her photo.

“As long as everyone is separate, safety issues honestly aren’t a big deal for me,” she said, shading her eyes from the sun.

She seemed to search my face, and again, I felt almost guilty for wearing my mask. At the same time, I felt that even the friendliest smile in the world couldn’t mitigate the fact that if I was reminding the entire beach that the pandemic still existed, the unfortunate reality was that it did still exist.

Feeling discouraged, I resolved to finish my photo-taking and then go home. However, as I continued on my way, I realized that I was being followed by the tall bald man from before who had asked me to leave.

As a woman, it is both a surreal and sobering experience to be followed. However, I was in a public space, so I stopped and braced myself for whatever he would say.

“I want to see your photo ID. If I see any photos of me or my family on the internet or in your newspaper, I will sue you. I will sue your paper,” he said.

I replied calmly that I was a journalist on public property, to which he replied, “You want to take a photo of me? I can take my pants off and you can take your photo then.”

You want to take a photo of me? I can take my pants off and you can take your photo then.

Wow. That escalated quickly. At this point, I was doubly glad that I had my mask on, to hide the range of emotions (fear, amusement, shock, exasperation) running across my face.

A bystander pointed out to the man that this was a public area, and no one wanted to see that. He became even more angry, and then said to me, “You know what? I know 27, 37 guys, who can follow you home and take a photo of you.”

This statement was considerably less funny. Feeling unnerved and threatened, I decided that it was best to leave before the situation escalated further (or worse, he might make good on his threat to flash the entire beach). What followed was a first in my reporting career—I had to leave the beach in such a way so that I could keep an eye over my shoulder in case I was followed. I took the safest route to my car and then crawled through the passenger seat so that no one would see me entering. I flopped onto the driver’s and after checking my surroundings for any potential stalkers, I started the car, feeling somewhat like a short, sweaty, overheated James Bond.

As I drove home I reflected on the mask, which I had thrown onto the passenger seat. It lay there, crumpled, and seemed as dissatisfied as I was with how the evening went. The simple square of fabric, meant to protect me, had actually turned me into a target.

I spent the rest of the evening getting down the details of what happened for an incident report that I would later file with the NRPS. As I felt more shaken than stirred, there was no martini for me.

However, I did order a fresh batch of masks. Perhaps, I thought, James Bond would have more luck on the next assignment, with a friendlier face mask in floral patterns and paisley.