On a small Toronto beach, tucked away near an industrial area, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists bump and grind each other every Saturday night.
This past weekend, thanks to a viral video showing men with chainsaws threatening the crowd, their months-long routine—protesting masks and COVID-19 regulations in downtown Toronto during the day and going to Cherry Beach to dance without masks or social distancing—was shaken up. Now they were forced to dance under bright lights put up by the city to kill the vibe. Around the dancers, Toronto police officers, bylaw officers, and security guards hired by the organizer patrolled the beach.
To combat the city's efforts to flood the dance floor with light, the party-goers hung some sheets and leaned a box spring against a tree to get a little bit of privacy. There was a DJ booth, and some speakers set up on the beach. Behind the rave was an encampment where some people were living in a commune-like setting.
Around midnight, standing in the sand in front of the DJ booth, a man in a grey shirt was trying to pump up the crowd with claims that authorities want to take away their freedom, so, to stick it to the man, they gotta dance. He screamed "freedom" with all the gusto of an unmasked William Wallace. A few of the middle-aged attendees began to dance to the house music, others started a half-hearted chant of "scamdemic."
One police officer at the beach, who didn’t want to give his name, told VICE News police have been overseeing the event for weeks (typically till 3 a.m.) and claimed there had been an increase in crime in the area since the parties started but, more often than not, everything was peaceful.
“Aside from the chainsaws,” the officer said, causing his partner to laugh.
The video that thrust this party into headlines is bizarre, even by viral video standards. It features two heavily tattooed men, one bleeding from the head, stalking towards a crowd. Both are carrying chainsaws and revving them menacingly.
"You're fucked now," yells one of the men in the video.
The incident in the video took place August 9 at around 9:30 in the morning. David Sullivan, who lives in the encampment and took the video, told VICE News he was instrumental in dealing with them as they came at the crowd. He said the men showed up earlier, while the party was ongoing and he quickly recognized them. They had been going to Cherry Beach parties for years and were known to be “troublemakers,” he claimed.
Sullivan said the duo hung out until well after the official party was done and then picked a fight. This ended in a scrap between one of the chainsaw duo and a fellow partier. Several people told VICE News that, either during the fight or shortly after, the other member of the chainsaw duo was hit hard on the back of the head with something.
The two men left and returned, bloodied and enraged, with chainsaws—it’s unknown exactly where the chainsaws came from but VICE was told one of the men used them for work—and went after the group. Sullivan said he saw the chainsaw guys coming and quickly worked to get everyone out of the camp, snap the morning dancers out of their stupor so they could run, and tried to de-escalate the situation by directing them towards the equipment of the event’s DJ, Omari Taylor.
“All of a sudden I hear chainsaws revving up from the frickin forest,” said Taylor. “And I hear 'chainsaw chainsaw'! These dudes come out with chainsaws and blood on them. And they're coming towards me and my equipment!”
Taylor said he moved out of the way but they took the saws to his DJ equipment with so much gusto they destroyed it.
“One guy went after someone in the crowd and he chased him across the lawn,” said Sullivan. “….When they came they were out of control in a blind rage."
“People were gonna get hurt or killed. Absolutely.”
The police came quickly. The two men were arrested and police say they face multiple charges. A security guard who didn’t want to be named said that he has worked the event for the past month—but was gone before the chainsaws showed up—and believes the chainsaw incident was assuredly a one-time thing.
"It's usually closer to 100 people," said the security guard. "But because of what happened last week, they're afraid to come."
Multiple people said they believe because of the wave of news surrounding the event—which includes a TPS internal investigation after an affiliated account amplified on the organizers—the city has decided to crack down on it.
The anti-mask raves down at Toronto's Cherry Beach have been going on for months now. The security guard said while the number of attendees went down this last weekend, the number of cops and bylaw officers increased dramatically.
Taylor, one of the organizers of the party and its resident DJ, told VICE News that bylaw officers gave him a $250 noise violation ticket at the very start of the event. Speaking to VICE News next to the booming sound system, Taylor called the pandemic a “scam" and explained the ethos behind the group and why they bristle at being called "anti-mask."
"We don't like mandatory masks,” he told VICE News about the groups organizing the event. “I'm pretty much anti-mask but I don't care if you want to wear one. We're against that and we're against social distancing in the schools. We don't want that. Because it'll cause psychological damage on kids.”
Taylor said they will continue to have the parties as long as weather permits. Chris Saccoccia, another one of the event organizers, wasn’t at the party VICE attended but answered questions by email. Saccoccia likewise said he’s not fully anti-mask—he believes sick people should wear medical-grade respirators but healthy people should not wear masks. Like many who spoke to VICE, and many other conspiracy-minded folks around the world, he believes the government is happily letting businesses close and people suffer as they’re in the midst of a power grab.
“Mandatory masks lead to mandatory contact tracing and then mandatory vaccines,” said Saccoccia. “This is not an accident or coincidence.”
“Covid is definitely a plandemic,” he added later. “What that means is they are drastically over exaggerating the virus to expand political power under the guise of public safety.”
While Saccoccia was not in attendance other Canadian anti-mask figures, like Letitia Montana, the woman who brought the ire of the internet down upon her by posting a video of her refusing to wear a mask at a hospital, were.
The opinions on the pandemic varied wildly at the event but they all followed some sort of conspiratorial leanings. Some said that while they believed coronavirus was real, they didn’t believe it was as bad as experts say or thought mandatory face masks were a slippery slope to mandatory vaccines. Others outright called the pandemic a scam or a complete hoax. One person who routinely attends the event and helps the organizers make sure the beach was cleaned afterwards. He told VICE, while he does think COVID-19 is real it’s been “usurped and turned into something where a crisis is being used to further the agenda of people who want to control the population or maybe make a profit or whatever it may be.”
Anti-mask sentiment and pushback on government regulations surrounding COVID-19 is growing quickly across the world. Recently in Canada, anti-mask protests have been popping up in almost every major city. In July, an anti-vaxxer group launched an $11 million lawsuit against Canada for its COVID-19 regulations.
Scientists recommend wearing masks as they help contain the spread of respiratory droplets that may contain the disease. To date, Canada has had over 120,000 cases and over 9,000 deaths from COVID-19. To combat this many regions instated regulations that closed businesses and made masks, at least in some form, mandatory.
A recent Angus Reid poll found that 18 percent of Canadians think that the COVID-19 regulations “go too far” and “have expanded their social circles, don’t physically distance and are ambivalent towards handwashing and mask-wearing.” Experts are warning of the second wave of coronavirus infection as lockdown fatigue begins to set in. B.C. is already beginning to see increases in cases, especially among younger people. On Friday, Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, warned that modelling indicates Canada could see the peak of infections in the fall and it could overwhelm our health care system. Tam said that as regions begin to lift lockdown restrictions, cases will go up.
Much like the anger, conspiracy theories like the QAnon or theones surrounding COVID-19 and 5G have been exploding during the pandemic. Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky, the chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol and an expert in conspiratorial thinking, told VICE for a previous story it’s not surprising as we’re living in an extremely trying and frightening time and it allows people to make sense from the chaos and hurt they’re living through.
The protests and dance parties are being organized by several groups—including one called M.A.D. (Mothers Against Distancing) which is run by Saccoccia, a wealthy childless man who works for SkyHomes Corp, his father's real estate development company in Vaughan. Several people at the party said Saccoccia funds a good portion of the group's activities, including the hiring of security guards at the dance party. Saccoccia gave VICE no comment on the event’s founding, saying he does “not believe that is anybody's business.”
Recently, much to the delight of his anti-mask followers, Saccoccia—who was not at the dance party that week because he was travelling—posted a video of him not wearing a mask on an Air Canada flight. The groups involved in the dance party have also been involved in stunts like handing out mask exemption cards and starting a "mask-off challenge" where they encouraged followers to go into businesses and film themselves without their mask on. Saccoccia said that he’s faced stiff resistance from the city.
“The city is doing everything in their power (and some things not in their power) to not only limit our ability to protest or gather… but also to discredit us with lies and defamation via mainstream media,” said Saccoccia.
The organizers call their ongoing efforts against the COVID-19 regulations "the summer of non-compliance." Some of the people at the party told VICE that “people love to hate Chris.” When you watch his speeches and stunts it’s clear that, at least partially, Saccoccia revels in the role he plays with the movement.
Some who attended the party weren’t there for political reasons. One group of four young people told VICE they heard about the event from their friends and didn’t know they were attending an anti-mask event, they were just there to dance.
For those there to protest via dance, the biggest excitement came when, at about 1:15 A.M., the music suddenly stopped. Murmers cut through the audience. Could this be the police or the city shutting them down?
“Fuck you, John Tory,” yelled the consistently aggrieved man in the grey shirt to the sky.
But soon enough they found out it wasn’t Toronto’s mayor coming down on them. There was no conspiracy. There was no one out to get them.
They had just blown a fuse.
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A previous version of this article stated the company Saccoccia works for is Open Sky Homes, it’s actually Sky Homes Corp.