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Rural Albertans want private campgrounds closed to limit spread of COVID-19

Concerns over private campgrounds in Alberta remaining open
WATCH ABOVE: The messaging from Alberta's Chief Medical of Health has been clear: avoid unnecessary travel. That's why residents in Big Lakes County are confused as to why private campgrounds are opening up along Lesser Slave Lake in the middle of the pandemic. Sarah Ryan has the story.

Residents of Big Lakes County along Lesser Slave Lake are calling on the province to close private campgrounds and treat them the same as public campgrounds during the pandemic.

Federal and provincial campgrounds are currently off limits.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Parks Canada to close national parks, historic sites to vehicle traffic

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, has been firm in saying non-essential travel should be avoided.

Hinshaw clarifies social distancing guidelines
Hinshaw clarifies social distancing guidelines

Joussard resident Aiden Boschman wants to follow her advice and thinks others should too, but he says keeping campgrounds open sends the wrong message.

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He pointed out that even preparing to camp requires additional contact with strangers.

“I’ve got to go get propane, I’ve got to go get extra groceries, I’ve got to stop for gas, a couple of times, we’re going to stop somewhere for snacks,” Boschman said.

“It’s all of that interaction among the citizens of Alberta that we could reduce.”

READ MORE: Privately owned campgrounds in Alberta remain open amid pandemic uncertainty

Joussard is located in Big Lakes County, northwest of Edmonton, on the edge of Lesser Slave Lake. The town alone is home to six private campgrounds.

So far, the county has seen 22 cases of the novel coronavirus and two deaths. Boschman wants to stop those numbers from climbing.

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“We love camping and we love campers — we really hope everyone in Western Canada would be able to come and enjoy our lake this summer — but only when it’s safe to do so,” he explained.

‘It’s our behaviour that counts’: Hinshaw says we need to focus on reality, not models
‘It’s our behaviour that counts’: Hinshaw says we need to focus on reality, not models

Boschman says in the summer, especially on long weekends, thousands of campers flock to the area.

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To gain attention to his cause, he started a petition calling on the province to close private campgrounds until the pandemic is over. As of Tuesday evening, it had 127 signatures.

“Going camping is a want; it’s not a need.”

Faust resident Cathy Bittman agrees. She’s worried travellers coming to private campgrounds could bring the virus to her community.

“It scares me. It scares me to pieces,” she said.

“I think they should shut it down completely. Yes, the owners will lose money, our little store will lose money. But I think at this point money is the least important.”

READ MORE: Privately owned campgrounds in Alberta remain open amid pandemic uncertainty

Richard Simard runs the Lakeshore campground and is president of the Joussard Community Association.

He said the campground will use strict regulations in an attempt to keep people safe when it opens May 1.

“They have to self-isolate. They can’t get any visitors coming to their campgrounds,” he explained.

“We have washrooms, a laundry room and showers, we have to close them. Our playground can’t be used so we took it out.”

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Simard said Lakeshore will only accept long-term campers, a precaution he’s heard nearby private campgrounds are all taking.

“They’re not taking anybody that drives up for a weekend with their camper and wants to camp for the weekend. No, there’s none of that.”

He said some seasonal campers have agreed to abide by the pandemic rules, while others are already cancelling.

“The seniors, a lot of them that I talked to, they said if we open or not, it doesn’t matter, they’re not coming,” Simard explained, saying they feel it’s too dangerous.

He said the board now has to discuss whether or not to refund people who will no longer be coming because of the pandemic.

Simard also acknowledged the province has said it will be keeping a close eye on the campground.

“People that are going to be driving by and they told us if they break the rules, they’re going to shut us down.”

Canadians known as snowbirds filling privately-owned campgrounds in southern Alberta
Canadians known as snowbirds filling privately-owned campgrounds in southern Alberta

Tom McMillian, assistant director of communications for Alberta Health, sent a statement to Global News.

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“We are aware that some Albertans do live in private campgrounds during spring and summer seasons as their permanent residences.”

The statement explained that private campgrounds must comply with safety measures.

“Alberta Health is exploring potential restrictions on recreational camping at private campgrounds or other similar locations. We will be providing additional guidance in the near future,” he wrote.

Marlin Schmidt, the NDP’s Environment Critic, wrote in a statement: “All campgrounds should be treated equally in this situation.

“In order to protect the health and safety of Albertans, private campgrounds should follow the lead of our provincial parks and remain closed until public health measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19 are lifted.”