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Woman with special needs son turned away from Cloverdale Library

Special needs kid has mask exemption, but Surrey Libraries won’t recognize it
A woman walks out of the Cloverdale Library in February 2022. Surrey Libraries has implemented a policy that it will not accept any mask exemptions and that has one Cloverdale resident up in arms. (Photo: Malin Jordan)

A Cloverdale woman is speaking out after she and her son were turned away from the Cloverdale Library Jan. 31 for not wearing masks.

Lindy Sandes took her son Dayton to the Cloverdale branch to teach him how to use the library. Dayton has special needs and is home-schooled. He’s also exempt from wearing a mask. Despite this, library workers said the Sandes weren’t allowed in.

“He can’t wear a mask,” explained Sandes. “I don’t wear a mask because (Dayton) has to see my face in order to be able to communicate. He has to be able to see my lips.”

Sandes said as she tried to explain to the staff about her son and his exemption, things inside the library got nasty.

“One of the women yelled at us, ‘No, you have to wear masks.’” Sandes said the worker told her Surrey Libraries implemented its own policy that they do not recognize any mask exemptions.

After the library worker yelled at Sandes, random library patrons began yelling at her too. Sandes said she was publicly shamed and humiliated.

After trying to work things out herself, Sandes called the police. She was hoping the Mounties could help give her access to the library.

When a Mountie arrived, he tried to work something out between both parties, but no compromise could be found. Sandes wanted to be inside the building to teach her son how to find books in the library and the library staff wanted the Sandes to use any number of remote services. After much back and forth, the RCMP officer told Sandes the library workers felt unsafe around her and he suggested they leave.

“He told me if we went back in, (the library staff) were going to call the police to have us removed.”

Sandes’ friend Andrea Hiebert just happened to be in the library at the same time and witnessed the events unfold.

“Ultimately, the staff at the library claimed they felt unsafe and so they were prepared to use the police to forcibly remove the woman and her child,” Hiebert told the Cloverdale Reporter. “I never saw my friend be violent or threatening in any way. She was visibly distressed and crying.”

Hiebert said the incident amounted to bullying and shaming. “She was justifiably upset and angry for her son’s sake. As the one responsible for his education, she needed him to have access to the physical library and he was being denied this.”

Seline Kutan, director of communications for Surrey Libraries, said they are “obligated to ensure the health and safety” of library staff and the general public. “With the recent rise in cases of COVID-19, and the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, we figured the best way to support the health and safety of our staff and the public was to not allow for any mask exemptions in the library branches.”

Kutan said Surrey Libraries decided to do it on their own as a temporary measure. “We know it goes above and beyond the provincial health officer’s order, but those orders aren’t all you can do, they are the minimum you must do.”

She said as long as they provide reasonable accommodations for people who can’t wear masks, Kutan is confident they are staying within what is legally allowed and not violating anyone’s human rights.

“When the mask order came in place last year, people were beginning to, lots of people were beginning to say, ‘Oh, I’m medically exempt, I’m medically exempt.’ And so, we were thinking—and we’re not allowed to ask people to prove their medical exemption—we decided the best way to ensure the safety of our staff and public was to simply just make the mask mandate (have) no exemptions.”

Kutan said they can offer other services to people who can’t wear masks, just not in the branch. “We’re asking people to use alternative services that we offer them, such as curbside pickup, online library resources, and that sort of thing.”

Kutan said Sandes did not want to explore any alternative options; she wanted to use the in-branch library services only. Kutan added the library even offered to bring a cart of books out into the foyer area of the library for Dayton to look through.

“She called the police herself, normally when people refuse to leave, we call the police,” said Kutan.

Kutan explained that Surrey Libraries will wait for Dr. Bonnie Henry to update public health orders before considering removing their mask policy.

“If (Henry) indicates that some of the health orders can be eased, then we can ease our mask mandate, as well,” noted Kutan. “We make decisions based on all the data available.”

Kutan said Surrey Libraries are eager for the pandemic to end so they can resume normal operations. “This isn’t something we like to do,” she said. “Our staff are not eager to be policing mask wearing.”

Kutan said the fear at the library doesn’t revolve around staff thinking they’ll catch COVID and die, but that the “no exemptions” mask rule is there to ensure staff don’t get sick and miss work. “If enough of our workforce gets sick and can’t come to work, forget death in the equation, but if they get sick and can’t come to work, then we can’t open our libraries and serve anybody.”

Sandes said she decided to speak out about the incident because the library’s “no exemptions” mask rule is indicative of a greater problem those in the special needs community have been suffering through during the pandemic. She said with restrictive measures being implemented, children with special needs have suffered disportionately greater harm than the rest of the wider community.

“They lost therapy sessions, surgeries were cancelled, activities were cancelled, and they lost connections to all their friends,” she explained.

Sandes said she’s calling on the Surrey Libraries to end its policy now and allow all kids with mask exemptions back in.

Sandes was overwhelmed by how many people in the special-needs community reached out to her over a 48-hour period to tell her they’ve been experiencing the same treatment throughout the pandemic.

“They’re exhausted from all of this,” said Sandes. “When you have a special needs child, under normal circumstances, you’re always fighting for them. You always have to fight for everything, for every little thing. The special-needs community has been decimated through the pandemic. Everything’s been taken away from them.”

She said it’s been hard for all families with children that have special needs, not just her.

“I’m speaking out for everyone,” added Sandes. “I just want (Surrey Libraries) to use common sense.”

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Malin Jordan

About the Author: Malin Jordan

Malin is the editor of the Cloverdale Reporter.
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