Anti-lockdown protesters march in defiance of quarantine measures taken to slow the spread COVID-19, Vancouver, BC, April 2020. BIGSTOCK

Soviet émigré and anti-masker says COVID restrictions too onerous, unnecessary

While Ontario’s current state of emergency and stay-at-home order were set to expire on Tuesday, it’s quite likely that both will renewed. Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, has stated that lockdown restrictions will continue until intensive care unit numbers in provincial hospitals are cut in half, and daily cases are below the 1000 mark.

That doesn’t sit well with an online group called We Are All Essential, a nationwide network of almost 400 businesses founded by Vladislav Sobolev, who is also associated with the anti-lockdown group Hugs Over Masks. He has organized a national day of protest on Feb. 11, encouraging small business owners and like-minded entrepreneurs to reopen their non-essential businesses in defiance of government directives. “Together we can end the lockdowns. February 11, Canada reopens,” reads a banner on the alliance’s website.

Business owners risk significant fines if they follow Sobolev’s exhortation. Penalties for individuals under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act include fines as high as $100,000, and a prison term of up to a year. Businesses which break the rules could face fines as much as $10 million, although a first offence would more likely result in a penalty of a few thousand dollars (which is still an amount that many small businesses can ill-afford).

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has urged businesses not to break the stay-at-home order, echoing health authorities across Canada, North America, and the world, that in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect the healthcare system, it is critical that all citizens and businesses comply with stay-at-home orders and bylaws.

Sobolev has called the current lockdown unjustified, and points to “expert research” on the We Are All Essential website that quotes from the Great Barrington Declaration (which argues for naturally occurring “herd immunity”) to buttress his position. Most medical experts, however, consider such assertions to be little more than a collection of fringe theories not based on any meaningful science, and point out that social media makes it very easy to find something which supports one’s pre-existing views, no matter how inaccurate they may be.

Indeed, the declaration was sponsored and drafted in October at the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian, free-market think tank in Massachusetts, part of a network of organizations underwritten by the far-right billionaire Charles Koch, who is known for promoting climate change denial and opposing business regulations.

There is no evidence to support the notion that herd immunity actually exists for COVID-19, given that new research is showing that antibodies to the virus in those previously infected drop significantly after six months. New variants of the virus continue to emerge as well, calling into question whether vaccines developed to combat the original coronavirus strain will be as effective against the new mutations.

In October, the American Public Health Association released a statement condemning the declaration as dangerous.

We have seen the failure of the herd immunity experiment in nations such as Sweden, which has the highest mortality rate among Nordic countries

“The declaration is not a strategy, it is a political statement. It ignores sound public health expertise. It preys on a frustrated populace….We have seen the failure of the herd immunity experiment in nations such as Sweden, which has the highest mortality rate among Nordic countries. COVID-19 carries a much higher risk of severe disease and death than other infections where herd immunity was attempted before a vaccine was available. It is illogical to ignore public health and scientific evidence when so many lives are at stake.”

Sobolev told blogTO that he is standing up for the restaurants, gyms, salons, small retail stores, and other businesses deemed non-essential that have been shuttered during the pandemic. “Many business owners aren’t content, or in a financial position, to wait,” said Sobolev. “Over 10,000 restaurants have closed across Canada since last March.” The Voice has not independently verified this claim.

He noted that financial supports from government programs haven’t been enough to offset expenditures for many businesses.

A veteran bartender and server, Sobolev has been an active opponent of lockdown restrictions for almost a year. He asserts that he has travelled across Canada attending protests and talking with business owners. Born in the former Soviet Union, Sobolev is distrustful of government, which he says has the capacity to economically oppress people and dismantle the small business class.

We Are All Essential is closely aligned with other anti-lockdown movements, and was quick to support Adamson’s BBQ in Etobicoke, which gained media attention when it was fined for non-compliance with non-essential business closure measures. Some $300,000 was crowdfunded to cover Adamson’s legal expenses.

Closer to home, on January 28 two hair salons in St. Catharines, both members of the We Are All Essential movement, were visited by Niagara Public Health bylaw officers. Chrome Artistic Barbering on Lake Street and Evolution Salon and Spa on Geneva Street were summonsed and fined for being in breach of COVID-19 rules.

Chrome owner Alicia Hirter had set up cameras and film studio equipment in her shop, and had maintained that people who came in for haircuts were auditioning for a part in a future TV show or podcast. (Provincial lockdown laws, invoked on December 26, allow film and television productions to operate.)

Regional officials said that bylaw officers will continue to visit the salons, and will escalated enforcement, if necessary, to ensure compliance.

Hirter told The Voice that she has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, and is “repositioning” for a reopening on February 11. “The show must go on,” she said.

Another St. Catharines-based business listed on the alliance website, St. Germain Services, offers mobile commercial and residential cleaning. Owner Devon St. Germain has a small team of workers, and although his car detailing and home cleaning operations have been curtailed, he has still been performing some industrial sanitizing and cleaning maintenance during the lockdown.

“Small business owners are ticked-off when they are forced to close, but see that the Costcos and Walmarts are still open. I support the We Are All Essential movement,” he said.

Pelham Fire Chief Bob Lymburner, who oversees bylaw enforcement in the municipality, told The Voice that, “regional law enforcement met last Friday, and will be monitoring the WeAreAllEssential.ca website. If any local businesses violate the lockdown order, charges will be issued.”