As Anti-Mask Protesters Occupy Prominent Belfast Corner, Officials Encourage Nonengagement
For years, protesters have gathered on Sundays at the corner of High and Main streets in downtown Belfast to speak out against war, racism and a proposed fish farm, among other causes. Some locals even call it “Protest Corner.”
But lately, the progressive activists have been replaced by a boisterous group of anti-mask protesters, and city officials are trying to balance the rights of the protesters with those of local residents and business owners.
On Sunday afternoon, a dozen protesters are gathered at the corner, chanting and waving placards that say “No masks for ME”. Some passersby give a thumbs up, and the protesters cheer.
“This is an anti-government-overreach, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, everything that entails,” says organizer Kaleigh Stanley of Northport, describing the protests.
Stanley runs a record store just across the street.
“I’m hoping to give people hope that there are people that can see exactly what is happening right now, and we’re not going to give up fighting for our freedoms. And if they want to come and join us, we’re making our side stronger every day. More people are waking up and realizing that we are being lied to, and that we are being manipulated and this is not a real pandemic,” she says.
Someone jeers from a car, and Stanley responds.
“We love you, take care, your mask is useless,” she says.
One protester uses a megaphone to chant “all lives matter” and to encourage passersby to remove their masks. The protests are loud enough that some residents are avoiding the area altogether.
“I confronted them one day, and my blood pressure went through the roof, so I have avoided downtown,” says Rachel Beckford, who lives nearby and is using another downtown street to skirt the protests. “I’m a knitter, and I knit with the library knitters and the First Church knitters, and I would say both groups of women avoid downtown because of the protesters.”
“My biggest concern is the small businesses that are being challenged during those times on Sundays,” says Belfast mayor Eric Sanders.
Sanders says as some shoppers have come to avoid the Sunday scene, businesses have paid the price. A couple of downtown business owners declined to discuss the controversy on tape, but Sanders suggests a remedy.
“The city is encouraging citizens to overshop, if you will, on Saturdays, to ensure that small businesses, in a pandemic, don’t further suffer from a lack of business,” he says.
Sanders posted signs downtown last summer reading “Masks required, please,” to encourage COVID safety.
Thirteen residents of a Belfast nursing home died with COVID-19 in the spring. The first selectman of neighboring Morrill died of COVID-19 in November, in a case linked to a church outbreak in Brooks. Now there are at least 23 cases associated with a church in Morrill, and at least seven at another Belfast nursing home.
Sanders says the city council discussed the protests, and the need for civility, at a recent meeting that prompted dozens of residents to comment by video link. He says most people want to see the right to protest protected.
“Democracy is standing on a corner and protesting about things. The irony here is that they are protesting wearing masks in the middle of a pandemic, when science has shown that masks are effective. That makes it a little bit tougher, but it doesn’t mean we can’t get through it together with civility,” he says.
But there have been tensions. At one recent protest, a protester shoved a man during an altercation at the corner, but no charges were filed.
On Sunday, a car stops at the corner, and a woman emerges to confront the protesters. She says she is a health care worker at a COVID-positive unit. As a protester approaches closely with a cellphone to film the woman’s badge, she grabs at the phone.
A police officer monitoring the protest intercedes. He asks the woman to meet him at the police station. She agrees, and quickly returns to her car and drives off.
The protesters chant louder than ever.
The police charged the woman with assault, disorderly conduct and reckless conduct, and one of the protesters with disorderly conduct. Police Chief Gerry Lincoln says he recently allocated extra hours to have officers on duty for any protests in Belfast. And in the interest of civility, and public health, Sanders says he is encouraging people not to engage with the protesters.