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Norfolk County mayor questions cottager ban, says provincial help is needed amid COVID-19

The sun sets in cottage country, Bobcaygeon, Ont. on Thursday May 30, 2013. Craig Wadman, Global News

After a cottager ban was issued by the area’s medical officer, Norfolk County mayor Kristal Chopp is expressing concern over an influx of visitors and appealing for help from the province amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On April 23, Haldimand-Norfolk’s medical officer Dr. Shanker Nesathurai signed an order forbidding residents with a second home in either county from occupying their recreational property. Letters with the order were mailed out to owners on May 1.

READ MORE: Haldimand-Norfolk, Ont., mayor backs premier’s upcoming ‘heart-to-heart’ cottage conference calls

While Chopp is “not necessarily even saying that I entirely agree with the order,” she said residents have very real reasons to be concerned in Halidmand and Norfolk.

“They know that we only have eight ventilators. They know that we only have five ICU beds across both counties. One hospital has one ventilator and one ICU bed. That’s why we can’t afford to have a second wave of cases if travel restrictions are lifted too early,” she said.

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“The problem is, in Haldimand and Norfolk we don’t just have cottagers. We have cottagers, we have boaters, we have thousands of migrant farmworkers, and we have thousands of day-trippers.”

READ MORE: Attendance light as only 75,000 check out Friday the 13th in Port Dover: OPP

Chopp highlighted an influx of visitors over the weekend, when the sun was shining and the temperature climbed to 19 C, describing the scene in Port Dover as like a “mini Friday the 13th,” which is a day that traditionally draws large crowds of motorcycle enthusiasts to Port Dover.

“It was a sad day here, when you think of all the people that are trying — staying home and who’s lives have been turned upside-down and trying to do the right thing — and I think it was a slap in the face to them. Do I think that they pose a greater risk, the day-trippers coming in here and the way that went down on the weekend, than our taxpaying cottagers? Absolutely, I do. But the premier, again, he’s been asking people to stay home and it hasn’t been working.”

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Chris Bradley, a director with the Long Point Ratepayers’ Association, argued that the health unit’s move to prohibit cottagers from returning to their property is exacerbating a divide within the community.

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“We’re already referred to commonly as ‘the cidiots’ who come in and are doing things. Just recently, this weekend, Mayor Chopp posted on her Facebook site that she wanted pictures of the influx of bikers going through the county and asking people for pictures so she could express to the province the challenges that she was facing with people invading Norfolk. The irony for us as seasonal residents is we experience this, there’s the cry for tourism in one breath, and then in the next breath it’s ‘stay away, stay away’ and then it’s ‘you cottagers who already have places that aren’t necessarily on top of each other, stay out!'”

For Bradley, cottages in Haldimand and Norfolk are not the same as “the multi-million dollar Muskoka places that everyone’s associating with the cottage.”

“A lot of these cottages in Long Point and Turkey Point have been passed down through the family generation through generation and represent major investments for the families involved. We have some members who have been hit by flooding in the fall and last year specifically,” he explained.

“We have one member who, there had been an arson on his property and an attempt on his life. At the same time, he’s been told by the contractor that he can’t have [his cottage] repaired for threats of fines by the county and through some of its elected officials.”
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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Ontario cottage country deals with influx of residents amid COVID-19 pandemic

Bradley also expressed frustration over how the prohibition unfolded and communication issues with the health unit.

“We found out through YouTube.”

“The board of health meeting had run long, we had tuned in because the integrity commissioner was slated to unveil his report to council on the conduct of our municipal council and it was merely a line on a presentation. None of the board of health members who also double as our municipal council in Norfolk asked any questions about it, it was brushed over,” he said.

“It wasn’t until we started asking further questions and I personally made an inquiry into the board of health. We received no response — in fact we were told there was no order. It wasn’t until I supplied them with a copy of a screenshot of the presentation that they acknowledged something existed. They were supposed to call me back and frankly I’m still waiting for the phone call.”

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Where both Bradley and Chopp agree, however, is that a blanket directive should have come from the province.

“If the province saw the ability to do something like this they would have done it already. It wouldn’t be an isolated thing where the Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit decides to issue, effectively, a travel ban for cottagers,” said Bradley.

“I don’t want to pick a fight with the premier in any way. I appreciate that a lot of these restrictions or regulations are made, things are being updated and changed daily. That is very hard to do and we appreciate all the support that we have received from the province,” Chopp said.

“I guess I have a little bit of a challenge when I hear on the news and in a press conference this disagreement with our medical officer of health and I’m not necessarily even saying that I entirely agree with the order — I believe it’s something that should have come from the province.”

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Escaping the ‘city’ during pandemic not recommended by Ontario health officials

Chopp would like to see the province provide additional OPP resources as well.

“If there were checkpoints, like in some of the other provinces, and okay, if you have a seasonal cottage, no problem, you can come down but simply moving about because you’re out day-tripping and moving between communities, that’s the really hard part,” she said.

“I do believe that our cottagers, on the whole, would bring their groceries, would come down, would stay in their cottagers and refrain from interacting with our locals here and at our local grocery stores and so on.”

–With files from Global News’ Don Mitchell.