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New York farmer jumps into COVID mandate debate

Maica/Getty Images covid face masks and gavel
MASK OR NOT: Will Ouweleen, a New York state vintner and winery owner, says the state’s ability to implement widespread mask mandates is unconstitutional. He’s suing the state’s health commissioner in federal court.
Will Ouweleen, an owner of a winery and vineyard, is suing the state over mask mandates.

Not convinced that masking or vaccines are the way to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a winery owner has sued the state of New York, claiming the state’s power to implement mask mandates for unvaccinated people violates his rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Will Ouweleen, owner of O-Neh-Da and Eagle Crest Vineyards in Hemlock Lake, filed a lawsuit earlier this month in the U.S. District for the Western District of New York claiming that the state’s prior mask mandate violates the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses.

The complaint reads:

“Plaintiff has a fundamental right, secured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, a. to breathe fresh air; b. to self-determination in matters of medical care and the administration of medical products and devices; c. to medical privacy; and d. Pursuant to the First and Fourteenth Amendment, to freely express his viewpoints on masks without being threatened with fines, business closure or adverse state action.”

It also reads: “The mask mandate violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because it forces unvaccinated people to use an experimental product and face burdens to their medical privacy and ability to breathe, but it allows similarly situated people in the same businesses and locations to be exempt from the mandates because they have submitted to an experimental vaccine, which is unable to provide them with sterilizing immunity.”

New York state issued an emergency order that was supposed to expire Sept. 20 requiring indoor masking of people who are unvaccinated.

Sujata S. Gibson of The Gibson Law Firm in Ithaca, which is representing Ouweleen, says emergency relief sought by the lawsuit is on hold since the state’s attempts to implement a widescale mask mandate have largely been put on hold.

Still, Gibson says, they are moving forward with the case.

“We’re still preserving the suit and will go on to an examination of the validity of the law since Commissioner [Howard] Zucker reserves the right to renew any of these regulations at his discretion, but no emergency relief is required at the moment since the offending regulations are on pause,” Gibson says.

Effects on business

Ouweleen says the vineyard, which he bought 15 years ago, is the oldest and only one in the U.S. dedicated to the production of sacramental wines for churches, most notably Catholic churches.

It was founded in 1872 by abolitionist bishop Bernard J. McQuaid, who is also the founding president of Seton Hall University.

Grapes grown for sacramental wines, Ouweleen says, must be grown organically since sacramental wines have to be of the vine and “not corrupt” to adhere with Catholic tradition. Organic grape growing is a tall task in the East with all the diseases and insects growers deal with during the growing season.

Ouweleen, who spent time working on Wall Street but grew up Catholic, has expanded the winery’s offerings to include chardonnays, Riesling and other wines, and other red and white wines.

He recently sold off part of the vineyard — 18 acres — to The Nature Conservancy and now buys in grapes to make the sacramental wines, but he plans on restarting the vineyard with a 10-acre parcel.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of New York state was especially hard for his business, Ouweleen says. Not only was he forced to close the tasting room, but also since churches largely ended in-person services, nobody was taking communion and sacramental wines weren’t needed.

As a result, Ouweleen says he’s reinventing the business to make it more of a destination winery and farm, and growing other specialty crops such as hemp.

Ouweleen says that he got very sick in early 2020 with what he suspects was COVID-19, although at the time very minimal testing of the disease was being done. For eight weeks, he felt weak and had breathing problems.

“I felt like I had an elephant sitting on my chest for two months. It was brutal,” he says.

The winery shut down in March 2020. During the shutdown, Ouweleen says he researched ways of being able to open the winery safely when the state allowed. He discovered a company called Vollara that sells products that claim to clean air in the room, ridding them of airborne and surface bacteria, viruses and molds.

He says the devices have been used by NASA and at the Cleveland Clinic to purify air. Ouweleen says that he bought some of the machines and put them in the tasting room. He then notified the state’s department of health that he was doing this as a prophylactic measure to combat COVID-19.

“I was looking for an alternative instead of giving into a long-term damaging thing for my business and farm,” he says, adding that he has degrees in biology and philosophy.

After then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended a state of emergency earlier this summer, an emergency declaration was later issued by the department of health mandating masking for unvaccinated people indoors.

Ouweleen says that he’s opposed to asking his employees and customers whether they’re vaccinated, and doesn’t believe masks can adequately prevent person-to-person transmission. He says that he doesn’t mask and hasn’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, and that the devices are good enough to protect him and his customers.

“I’m prepared to discuss with anyone. I think I’m on solid ground, not popular ground,” he says. “I'm a peaceful, loving hippy who loves my fellow man and woman, and if this is all I got to do to have us get a discussion going about alternative solutions and stepping back, then it's the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

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