A Facebook group that organizers said was started to help worried folks find businesses that were using facemasks has set off a community uproar with allegations of being a “witch hunt.”

The group, called “McKean County Area COVID-19 Compliant,” had featured a map where members could report what they saw at businesses they had visited. Businesses were marked with green, as in compliant; yellow, meaning use caution, possible issues; or red, for non-compliant.

One of the group’s administrators, Lori Rose Bebko, added a statement right from the start about the group’s intentions, and what it wasn’t meant to be.

“This group was created to identify COVID-19 compliant businesses and businesses that have refused to be compliant with masks and social distancing mandates and advisories,” the group’s description read. “This group will not be a discussion forum about the pros and cons of being COVID-19 compliant. It will not be a discussion forum for conspiracy theories or to shame businesses that choose not to be compliant.

“It is simply an informational group for those who want to have the facts before they choose who to give their business to,” the description read.

Someone had taken screenshots of the group’s posts and membership list and distributed them on Facebook, calling it a “hit list” and saying the purpose of the group was to “wage war on small businesses.”

While the group began June 30, it appears that Saturday was when the uproar began.

Marsha McCracken, owner of the Foster Brook Creamery, was alerted by a friend on Saturday that her business was on the map in yellow, as possible issues with compliance. And a community member posted a comment on the group’s page saying employees at the restaurant were not wearing masks.

“I think the basic premise of the group (when it began) was that people were concerned, which they have every right to be,” McCracken said, adding she had no issue with that.

However, her issue comes from that customer saying she had asked an employee why she wasn’t wearing a mask, and what her medical condition was that prevented her from doing so. The customer continued, saying she would never eat at the Creamery again.

McCracken, who said she welcomes a chance to speak to anyone who has an issue with her business, was bothered that the woman didn’t speak to her, but instead went to social media to make her comments.

“I don’t understand how people can be so hateful and unkind in times when we really should be pulling together and trying to help each other out,” McCracken said. “I don’t even know this lady, and for her to rush to judgment on us was completely out of line.”

She added that she believes the group was created with good intentions, and said such a map could be good information with someone concerned with exposure to COVID-19.

“But it’s also your choice not to go” to a specific business, she said. “It doesn’t give you the right to harass them. … They automatically assumed the business was being willfully uncompliant.”

McCracken added, “I think there will be some unfortunate consequences from this group.”

One of the members of the group is Margie Brown, the Democratic candidate for the 25th District Senatorial race, who on Monday was being criticized for allegedly being against small businesses.

That isn’t the case, she said.

When contacted by The Era, Brown said, “It’s unfortunate that an abbreviated screenshot is being used to tell an incomplete story. I’m pro all business and I want to assist all constituents in Senate District 25.”

Others were drawing conclusions that someone from The Era was involved in the group, as one member was a former employee. That is not the case.

Some business owners were commenting Monday that they intended to ban anyone involved in the group from their premises. Riki Tanaka, owner of Table 105 in Kane, Corner Bistro in Smethport and Fox’s Pizza Den in Smethport, had posted a lengthy statement on the matter.

While his businesses were not on the list, he indicated he posted in solidarity with other small business owners who are fighting to stay afloat during the pandemic. He began by explaining he has maintained compliance with recommendations, but said how his businesses have fared, too.

“I was forced to all but close and furlough 79 of my team while I watched big box stores bring in record sales,” Tanaka wrote. “I lost 3 1/2 months of income and revenue, no unemployment for me & no stimulus. I have supported EVERY group, organization, school, sporting team and philanthropic organization since 2003. I am currently operating on 50% of potential revenues while incurring increased operating expenses.”

He categorized the Facebook group as trying to destroy businesses.

“Small business in rural areas are the backbone of the economy. We invest in communities and I don’t mean just monetarily,” Tanaka wrote.

“We work hard, long hours with the hope of just paying our bills and hope there’s enough left over for us in the end. Our staff are like family to us and you’ve messed with my family and I will not tolerate this,” he wrote, and invited those who didn’t agree with him to delete him on social media and to spend their money in bug box stores. “I simply refuse to pander to this type of individual any longer.

“And also please be kind when your in local businesses. We don’t like these rules any more than many of you do.”

Tanaka did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The Facebook group is no longer publicly available for viewing. Whether or not it is still in existence was unclear as of Monday.

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