WINNIPEG -- Hundreds of Manitobans gathered in Steinbach to protest COVID-19 restrictions implemented across the province, which led to at least one of the rally's speakers being handed a $1,200 ticket for violating the very orders they were protesting.

On Saturday afternoon, an estimated 500 people gathered for a 'Hugs over Masks' car rally in Steinbach, a city that is currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. According to provincial data, the Southern Manitoba city has 263 active cases, and has reported 14 deaths - the highest number of any area in the Southern Health region.

CTV News has previously reported that Steinbach has one of the highest infection rates in the country. Three kilometres away from the rally is Bethesda Regional Health Centre, which is also currently dealing with spiking cases.

Lewis Weiss, the elected Reeve for the RM of La Broquerie, was among the speakers at the rally.

"It seems very strange that our loved ones are being allowed to die when there are medicines available that very quickly and easily can cure this," he said.

Weiss was joined at the rally by a number of speakers including a pastor, a former chiropractor, and other community members.

Minutes after the rally ended, a provincial conservation officer handed Weiss a ticket of $1,296 for violating public health orders. This is the maximum amount an individual can be fined under current orders in Manitoba. 


Conservation officers wrote Lewis Weiss, a speaker at the rally and Reeve of La Broquerie, a ticket. (Source: CTV News/Danton Unger)

Weiss told CTV News he believes he "put a target on my back" by speaking out.

Rally attendees responded by yelling, honking and berating the officer, surrounding provincial personnel and media. A person at the rally appeared to back their car into one of the responding provincial officers.

A spokesperson for the province told CTV News enforcement officials were on the scene and issued tickets, saying Manitoba Justice will provide more specific information once all the tickets have been processed.

"Our government finds it particularly disappointing to learn that excessive verbal abuse was directed at enforcement officials who were on site and issuing tickets," they said. "These enforcement officials should be commended for doing their part to help keep Manitobans safe from the kind of irresponsible behaviour that was on display today."

They did not say how many tickets were issued.

"Each person here in this country is so incredibly important, and I have nothing but compassion for everybody here, regardless of what side you are on, regardless of your beliefs," said Kayla, one of the attendees at the rally.

"What we're seeing here is people gathering from all different races, nationalities, backgrounds, careers and they all just want one thing, and that is freedom."

Not all those in attendance at the rally were there to support the group.

Bambi Bertholet, a resident of Steinbach, was at the rally and had decorated her car with messages urging people to follow public health orders, including wearing a mask.

"Honestly, it does make me angry and it makes me really sad, and I feel like it is a huge disrespect to healthcare workers right now," she said. "It is scary right now and I don't know what they don't get?"

Bertholet said she was told to leave by RCMP officers who were at the rally.

She was not the only one at the rally who was against the anti-mask movement. 

"I'm really quite alarmed, discouraged by the ability of large groups of people to act against science and against the best interest of the public all in the name of personal freedom," said Dennis Hiebert, a professor of sociology at Providence University College and a resident of Steinbach. 

"I think it is very troubling."

Speakers at the rally continued to call out the media for how it has covered the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming local news organizations covering the rally were spreading government "propaganda" and said, "media is the worst virus of them all."

"The mainstream media has abandoned the people," said former chiropractor Gerry Bohemier, who was speaking at the rally. 

Following the rally, an organizer berated the local media who were covering the gathering.