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Jan. 27, 2022 | Thursday
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Artist frustrated by anti-masker who defied lockdown rules
NOTL artist Filomena Pisano says she’s been berated and called a “communist” and a “sheep” for confronting a fellow tenant in her building who held maskless classes with children during lockdown orders. (Richard Harley photo)

Niagara-on-the-Lake artist Filomena Pisano says she doesn't want to have to choose between her studio and her health after a fellow tenant in the old Virgil Public School hosted maskless, indoor classes for children during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Pisano, who rents space in the building on Four Mile Creek Road, said fellow tenant Beata O’Connell has violated pandemic protocols and has berated Pisano for expressing discomfort and concerns for her health.

When she confronted O’Connell about the problem and warned it was illegal to be holding classes, Pisano claims she was called a "communist" and a "sheep" for her concerns about public safety. O’Connell denies saying that.

A church and the Bikes for Farmworkers volunteer group also share the same building, and Pisano says it's not right that one person is potentially putting the others at risk.

Besides the students, Pisano said she saw maskless parents in the hallways waiting to pick up their children.

O'Connell, who has anti-mask rhetoric posted on her door, is a vocal anti-masker.

In an interview Tuesday, O'Connell, who operates ArtVeritas Visual Arts Studio, admitted she hosted children in her studio in March 2021 during the lockdown. 

"As a caregiver for those children, I had (a) right to have up to 10 altogether. So, I had eight. And I had this program for one, just one week, March break, after one year not having anything happening in that studio," she said.

She refused to say whether she was registered as a day care or primary caregiver to the children and accused Pisano of being the source of the problem for burning sage in the building and smoking cannabis.

Pisano said she doesn’t consume cannabis in the building and noted fire and bylaw officials have said she can burn sage indoors.

O'Connell said bylaw officers were in recently to speak with her about the classes, but said no bylaw officers stopped by until June.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she never received Pisano’s original March 28 email complaining about the COVID protocol violations, but followed up with her April 6 as soon as she was aware of the situation. 

At that time bylaw officers followed up with Pisano, but were told she did not wish to pursue the complaint, Disero said.

Investigators responded to a new complaint on June 3 and visited the building the next day, Disero told The Lake Report. O’Connell said bylaw officers spoke to her but laid no charges.

Pisano wrote a social media post last week to draw attention to the issue and complain that it was still a problem.

In her original March message to the mayor, Pisano said, "I have to share the bathroom with this woman and several other tenants. I have a weak immune system and am concerned for my safety." 

Pisano's emails allege O'Connell, a Fort Erie resident, attended anti-mask demonstrations in Toronto. All of this added to Pisano's fear that someone might be bringing the virus into the shared workspace, she said.

"She attends the anti-mask demonstrations in Toronto maskless, then returns to NOTL to the building I’m also in. It’s all over her Facebook page," Pisano wrote.

An upset Pisano told The Lake Report she just wants to be able to work in a safe environment, untainted by people who don't understand the gravity of COVID-19 — a virus that has killed almost 26,000 Canadians, more than 400 Niagara residents and 3.7 million people worldwide.

In an interview, O'Connell made it clear she does not believe in masks, will not get vaccinated and suggested COVID-19 deaths are the result of the seasonal flu — despite average annual flu death numbers not being anywhere near the number of deaths from COVID-19.

In 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported 80,000 people had died from the flu in the United States. From Feb. 15, 2020, to Feb. 15, 2021, COVID-19 killed more than 500,000 Americans.

Also, despite evidence to the contrary, O'Connell maintains:

* Masks are more harmful than COVID-19, claiming someone can only wear a mask for 15 minutes before it starts to deprive them of oxygen.

* Arts workers are exempt from mask laws.

* Anyone, including doctors, who says masks work to prevent the spread of viruses is "not telling the truth."

* Based on “research and knowledge,” it is her right to protect her family from what she believes to be the harms of masks.

* She is legally allowed to have up to 10 students in her class during lockdown, though provincial orders said gatherings of that size with members outside your household – even your own relatives – were against the law. 

During the March break classes, O'Connell said she had a Montessori teacher on hand to teach math and language. "So, it's not just visual arts."

However, even regular schools were closed at the time. The subject matter being taught did not make it legal for her to operate, much less indoors or maskless in a shared facility, according to the provincial lockdown orders.

O'Connell said other than the March classes, her business was "completely on hold" during lockdown.

She criticized a reporter for asking questions, saying, "I would be more concerned if I was you for what's going on with the local businesses during the lockdown, with the children in the families in the Niagara region, to see how lockdown had an profound negative effect."

At the mention of the millions of people who have died from COVID-19 worldwide, she scoffed sarcastically.

She reiterated she believes she has a right to have 10 children indoors without a mask.

"I had to pay for my studio for an entire year, and I have to pay to this very day and I'm still wondering, should I keep it or should I not and this is my story. The story is that lockdown really had very negative effects on my business."

She claimed that all of the children, the parents and herself were exempt from mask laws, but would not explain why she believed that.

She also suggested that if The Lake Report publishes a story after asking her about mask exemptions, it would be an illegal violation of "privacy between doctor and people."

Claiming the government hasn't given any evidence to justify a lockdown, she added, "Actually, this narrative, it's only political and from the government."

However, data has been provided daily in updates from public health units across the country, both in case numbers, death numbers and sequencing of samples to determine variant numbers.

She strongly implied she believes COVID-19 deaths are actually just the flu. When asked specifically if she thought COVID-19 was the flu, she said, "I believe in virus, but I'm not believing in the pandemic because the scientific and medical data does not show me that."

Masks are “a hazard,” she said. “You cannot keep on yourself longer than 15 minutes, because it cuts you off oxygen and you have to breathe properly." 

Pisano said she believes the bylaw department dropped the ball, despite her complaints. 

"I look up and there's five or six kids, no masks, parents coming in and out. The room is full, there's like this party of people, and I'm like in shock.”

She said she didn't really want to report O'Connell, but she didn't feel it was right for her to put the rest of the tenants at risk.

"I know she's struggling. And I was silent, I just said, you know, just mind your own business, pretend you're not seeing this, just walk away, walk away. And with good conscience, I couldn't do it any more, because it's not just affecting me."

Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake administrators refused any comment on the matter, citing privacy concerns. 

However, nothing legally prevents officials from saying whether they are investigating a complaint, the nature of the complaint or providing some details about the situation.