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Coronavirus: Ontario cottage country deals with influx of residents amid COVID-19 pandemic

Premier Doug Ford tells people to avoid cottage country
WATCH: Premier Ford is asking people not to head north to self-isolate. There are concerns the more rural areas don’t have the capacity or resources to deal with COVID-19. Miranda Anthistle reports from Queen’s Park.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario’s Muskoka District has seen an increase in human traffic from its seasonal residents, leaving some officials concerned that the region’s hospitals won’t be able to support the increased population.

“The long-term concern will always be around hospital capacity and health care capacity,” Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith told Global News Monday.

“[There’s] small hospitals up here, only so many ICU beds, only so many ventilators, and if for whatever reason we’re so unlucky as to have a run of cases that require hospitalization, those rooms could theoretically fill up pretty quickly.”
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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Premier Doug Ford pleads for city residents to avoid rural cottages, properties

On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford asked urban residents to avoid heading to their cottages during the COVID-19 outbreak. He said he’s received calls from several cottage country mayors and residents about the issue.

“If a whole bunch of people head up there, the retail stores don’t have the vital essentials to keep the people that live up there all year round,” Ford said at a press conference Friday.

“The hospitals, they don’t have the capacity we do in urban settings.”

Some people have conflated Muskoka’s current influx in residents with the area’s population increase in the summertime, according to Smith.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Officials say avoid cottage country to limit resource strain

“We can handle the summertime, so why can’t we potentially handle this?” Smith said.

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“In the summertime, not everybody needs an ICU bed. There’s a lot of fishhooks in the finger and broken bones and things like that, and it’s an ER thing, but it’s often not an ICU thing.”

A couple weeks ago, many people started stocking up on groceries and essentials due to concerns about the pandemic, which put stress on essential supply chains.

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I think our food supply and our grocery stores were taxed at that point, not just because cottagers were here, but more so because everyone started to worry about COVID-19,” Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding said.

According to Smith, however, the region has seen stability in its food supply since then.

“It’s somewhat slowed down,” the Bracebridge mayor said. “It’s still reasonably busy at the grocery stores and at some of the hardware stores.”

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While there’s been an increase in the population amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Harding said it’s nowhere near the township’s “summer seasonal traffic.”

We wouldn’t even have added 10 per cent to our population base from a year-round perspective,” he said.

The Muskoka Lakes mayor also noted the township saw an increase in residents two weeks ago, which could have been due to March Break, and Smith said he noticed more traffic in the area two weekends ago than he did this past weekend

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Many of our seasonal properties are not accessible this time of year,” Harding said.

“They’re island properties, the ice is in, some of the cottage roads have still not opened up if they weren’t plowed or the frost isn’t out of the ground yet.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Health minister signs order for faster access to COVID-19 test kits

And while there’s been controversy over seasonal residents migrating to Ontario cottage country, Smith said the community recently banded together to donate $135,000 for more ICU beds.

“That’s the kind of generosity that we’re thankful for from our seasonal residents,” Smith said, adding that he’s encouraging people to have a plan on where they can get the best care if they become symptomatic.

“I’m encouraging people to follow the directions,” Harding said. “The Canadian officer of health has requested that people do not go to their cottages.”

As of Monday, there have been 50 cases of COVID-19 under the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s jurisdiction, although most of those are in Simcoe County. Ontario has reported a total of 1,706 cases.

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