Two Hills, Alta.—There’s a slow but steady trickle of customers outside the Burger Palace drive-thru and takeout windows, eagerly squeezing in orders before the restaurant closes for the day.
In a packed kitchen, Annie Unger works at a frantic pace to satisfy the last-minute rush before closing the drive-thru, sling poutine and piping-hot pizza for customers with a cheerful smile. About the same time the family decided to discontinue indoor feeding, the Alberta government introduced regulations requiring them to check proof of vaccination, a thorny topic in the community.
“it used to be Crazy is busy all the time, there will be people everywhere, outside, inside, but it has slowed down a lot,” says Ungar, who has been working at restaurants since the age of nine and plans to eventually take .
Burger Palace is located about 140 kilometers east of Edmonton near a junction of two busy highways. It is surrounded by grain silos larger than a farm and ranch supply store and next to a defunct run-down restaurant that once doubled as a gas station. You can almost miss the non-descript, shoebox-shaped building if not for the giant Burger Palace sign atop the structure, a beacon for hungry travelers and local laborers.
Two Hills, a town of about 1,400 people, is best known for the nearby hills from which it derives its name. But it now has the dubious distinction of living in a county with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Alberta, which some have linked to a large Mennonite community that calls the area home.
The province is being crushed by a fourth wave, with plans to expand ICU capacity, fly in nurses from other provinces and restart public health measures that had previously been declared for good. City centers such as Edmonton and Calgary are seeing disproportionate numbers of patients in the province’s ICUs compared to rural areas such as Two Hills, where vaccination rates have lagged.
The low vaccination rate in the county, which has about 5,000 people, has created tension and exposed rifts in the usually tight-knit community. Ungers tells Starr that he has been mocked by other members of the faith for getting the shot and has opted not to reopen his dine-in service to avoid harassment.
Meanwhile, down the street from the Mexican Family store, owner Gerard Neufeld says he will “never” get vaccinated, refuses to wear a mask in his store and expresses anger about public health restrictions.
Call it the story of Two Hills.
In the county, 47.5 percent of people over the age of 12 have received their first dose, while only 40.9 percent are fully immunized. This is the third lowest rate in the province and is well below the provincial average of 75 percent and the national average of 80 percent.
Two Hills County currently has 39 active cases for a rate of 699 per 100,000 people, which is almost three times the rate of cities such as Edmonton and Calgary.
Two Hills is a typical Alberta small town, surrounded by wheat fields and cattle ranches, with a busy mom ‘n’ pop sugar restaurant and, as is typical in the prairie, almost as many small independent liquor stores as churches. . The mark the local Mexican Mennonite community has left on the city is the bustling Mexican family store in the center of town, the occasional storefront sign in Spanish, and women shopping in their floral dresses and head coverings. Clothing usually worn by women of Mennonite and Hutterite religions.
The Mennonites are a group of Anabaptist sects related to the Hutterites and Amish, who are known to have limited contact with people outside their community. They believe that their faith tells them to embrace communal living and service to others. They live in colonies on the prairie and throughout Ontario, as well as in urban centers.
At the Burger Palace, owner Johann Unger, whose family is Mennonite, explains that most Mennonites in the Two Hills came from Mexico, but have their roots in the prairie; They first settled in western Canada when they arrived from Europe in the 1800s, but left for Mexico more than a century ago, due to policies seen as encroaching on their religious beliefs, such as The children needed to go to school.
The first language of the Mennonites is a German dialect, but many in the community also speak some Spanish due to their time in Mexico. Ungar, whose grandfather was born in Saskatchewan, moved here via Mexico and Kansas in 2008.
Ungar, a friendly, if somewhat stoic and outspoken man, is busy checking a message on his phone as a woman in a headscarf shakes her head through the Burger Palace drive-thru window to pick up an order . At 2 p.m. he will bulldozer into the field to earn some extra money; His daughter also works a part-time job at a local school.
Times have been tough. He points to the dining room, which has its tough table and vintage vinyl chairs, and recalls how busy it would be during his busy time — breakfast. But it’s now hopelessly empty, deciding to shut down its food service to avoid harassment from people protesting the government’s public health restrictions, such as mandatory indoor masks, and now showing proof of vaccination. the result is.
“So I told the health inspector that I wasn’t even going to open the door,” Unger says. “Because there will be a lot of people going mad at us,” to ask to see the proof of their vaccination.
Ungar has his reasons for being mad. While the pandemic has affected his business, it has also cast a shadow over his family’s life – he lost his parents last month to complications from COVID-19.
He sold everything in Mexico and moved to Canada two years ago. He caught the virus at Two Hills Seniors Lodge and died within a span of 53 hours.
Unger had already got his first shot, as he owns a business, after his parents became ill. But his death soon prompted the rest of his family to shoot.
“If people would have seen them, like almost at the end, they wouldn’t be so much against the vaccine,” Unger says. “We saw how hard they had to breathe at the end… What we saw in the last few hours with my mom was when everyone decided to do it.
“Because he had to suffer so badly.”
Vaccination in the community is a controversial topic. Unger said that many Mennonites strongly oppose vaccination and pass judgment on those who are immunized. Unger said his wife Agatha was harassed during the purchase.
“They’re calling us stupid and dumb, why did we take it, they think that drug has little knives in it so it’s in our blood now. I don’t know why people think such stupid things, Angar says, shaking his head.
“They also say we’re lying about John’s parents dying of COVID,” says Agatha, who said she now worries about someone while out and about. They face off about the shot in the city.
Annie, who recently graduated from high school, said vaccination is a thorny topic in her circle of friends. Most of his friends are also Mennonites and most of his family opposes the vaccine.
“Out of all my friends, I think I’m the only one who’s been vaccinated, really,” she says. “It’s like 20 of us, and only me and my cousins.”
While some believe in conspiracy theories, others are opposed to the government’s idea of how they should live their lives. Annie is unsuccessful in trying to persuade them to shoot.
“It sounds a little harsh, but it’s like talking to a wall,” says Annie. “They don’t want to hear anything about it.”
Not far from the Mexican Family store, owner Gerard Neufeld is serving customers without wearing a mask, as is currently required by law. Neufeld’s store caters to the Mennonite diaspora from Mexico and strongly opposes mandatory masking, vaccines or other public health measures.
“No one is going to control us… They want to take away our rights,” says Neufeld, who is a Mennonite. “God is above us. He is watching over us and He protects us.”
He said he opposes the COVID-19 vaccine because it is not made in Canada and prefers not to wear a mask because he believes it restricts his breathing.
“I’ve never had a vaccine,” Neufeld says. “Believe it or not, I’ve never had a needle. And I’m strong… We must take care of our own lives.”
There is no religious justification for avoiding the vaccine – last month, the Mennonite Church of Canada said they would not provide a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine because “nothing in the Bible, in our historical confession of faith, in our theology or in our theology that justifies giving religious exemptions from vaccination against COVID-19.”
Several Mennonite community members in the Two Hills area who spoke to Starr but declined to share their names said they were not opposed to the vaccine itself, but rather the government telling them how to live. The government seems to be getting closer to violating his religious freedom, which goes back to his self-imposed exodus in the 1920s.
Don Gulayek, who is running for re-election as Reeve in Two Hills County, said while opposition to the vaccine is strong in the Mennonite community, there are similar attitudes among evangelical and Roman Catholic residents of the county.
“It’s something we’re dealing with… on a scale of one to 10, we kill one,” Gulayek said. “But we still have nine more levels.”
Areas like Two Hills could serve as a barometer for public health officials facing the challenge of getting vaccine-hesitant rural communities on board. It hasn’t been easy.
Cheri Nijsen-Jordan, co-head of the vaccine task force for Alberta, said she has tried several strategies, from increasing access to clinics to…