With the May long weekend approaching, many Ontarians are wondering whether they can visit their cottages as the province continues to fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In a statement Thursday morning, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said to hold off on travelling to cottage country areas until it is safe to do so, adding that there will be “plenty of long weekends to come.”
“We are still battling a terrible virus, so we are asking seasonal residents travelling to their cottages to practise the same public health measures as usual, including no public gatherings, avoiding non-essential travel as much as possible and continue to practise social distancing,” Ford said.
“We need to focus on doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians.”
The premier’s statement comes one day after a discussion took place involving him and the province’s cottage country mayors about how COVID-19 is affecting their respective regions.
Global News has spoken with the mayors of Bracebridge and Huntsville in Muskoka and Collingwood in Simcoe County for further information about travelling to the cottage in several different scenarios.
Can I visit my cottage for a long weekend getaway?
If people have cottages and don’t need to visit them, it’s better not to do so yet, Huntsville Mayor Karin Terziano said, echoing Ford’s statement that seasonal residents should hold off on travelling to the region.
“It’s not cottage life as usual here right now,” Terziano said of Huntsville. “There’s absolutely nothing open in town. There’s no facilities open, there’s no parks open.”
Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith agrees, saying his municipality is continuing to follow public health’s recommendations, including the one that discourages non-essential travel.
“It’s not (a weekend) where we’re really looking for tourists to come in any way,” Smith said. “For cottage owners, it’s one thing, but there are no facilities open to cater to any tourists.”
For Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson, one issue during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Simcoe County town has been the so-called “weekenders” — people who are looking for a quick vacation away from the city — although he said there’s a distinction to be made between those who own cottages and those who are looking for a short-term rental, the latter of which Ontario has deemed a non-essential workplace, with some exceptions.
“Tourism is part of our economy. We will welcome those visitors back when the time is right. The time is not right now,” Saunderson said of Collingwood.
“For those that own places up here and they’re coming up for the weekend, then we would ask them to bring up most of their provisions with them and to make sure that they respect the ongoing social restrictions that are in place.”
What if I need to check on my property to make sure everything is in order?
Those who have cottages and feel that they must check on their properties are able to do so, provided they bring their own supplies and follow all of the COVID-19 restrictions, according to Terziano.
“It’s avoiding unnecessary travel by not coming, but we understand that we’ve had a little bit of high water level, and there’s people that worry about their water pipes,” the Huntsville mayor said of Muskoka.
“We do understand that at some point in the spring, people have to get up here. They can do so fully respecting all of the guidelines.”
Smith said he recognizes that seasonal residents are already in Bracebridge and that more are bound to come.
“We prefer that it’s limited to essential travel and that people are using the opportunity to check on their property to ensure that everything is in good working order after a long winter,” he said.
“We know that people will come. If that’s the case, then we would ask that they social distance, we would ask that they bring supplies with them, that they limit their contact with others.”
The Muskoka mayors note that this is not a time to host gatherings at the cottage.
“You go directly to the cottage, and that’s where you stay,” Terziano said. “It’s not a time to bring guests and to have campfires. We have total fire ban.”
What if I move to my cottage during the COVID-19 pandemic?
While some city-dwellers may be looking for a quick getaway, others are wondering about moving to the cottage as Ontario continues its fight against the novel coronavirus.
“I think there have been a number of people that have done that,” Smith said of Bracebridge, adding that some have come up to their seasonal properties and have brought their own supplies, doing the best they can to isolate from others.
“That’s what we’d hope people would do.”
For those who want to move to their cottages for the summer, Terziano said: “That’s certainly understandable, especially if that’s what they generally do.”
“Just follow all of the medical advice and rules, and we should all be good if everybody is respectful of each other and does the right thing,” she said.
In Collingwood, Saunderson said the message to seasonal residents has been to pick a property to stay at and remain put. For the Collingwood mayor, those who have moved to their cottage are considered to be residents.
“They have chosen to stay in their seasonal residence, which is fine, to ride out the pandemic,” Saunderson said. “We have welcomed them because they’ve elected to abide by the social restrictions and stay in their residences.”
In the past, cottage country mayors in Ontario have spoken about the possibility for local health-care systems to be stressed if there is an increase in seasonal residents.
“That continues to be a concern,” Smith said of Muskoka. “Obviously, the more people are here, the more chances of not only COVID-related illness happening but also emergency-related cases and more people ending up in the hospital.”
When Muskoka’s population grows in the summer, Terziano said, the demand in local hospitals always exceeds the capacity.
“The wait times are horrendous in the middle of the summer, so you don’t want to put our hospital in that kind of position and then have them have to start dealing with the potential virus cases on top of normal activity,” Terziano said.
Some seasonal residents may be planning to return to their primary health-care provider or hospital outside of cottage country if needed, to which Smith said: “That’s great for the limited resources we have here, although not everyone has an opportunity to actually do that when something happens.”
For cottagers who start to feel unwell and return home to their primary health-care provider, Terziano said: “That’s a responsible attitude to take.”
“You need to pick a place that you’re comfortable if your health could become infected or your health is compromised,” Saunderson, the Collingwood mayor, said. “Where is your primary health-care network? For many, I think that’s been an important consideration.”
Can I travel back and forth between my cottage and my primary residence?
What Smith hopes to avoid is people frequently travelling back and forth between their cottages and primary residences.
“I think what we all hope we avoid is the continuous up and down the highway, commuting back and forth to the cottage because then you’re in two communities,” he said.
“The danger of being asymptomatic and possibly spreading something is real, and you’re kind of interacting with a greater number of people over and over.”
According to Terziano, travel puts more stress on highways, which can lead to more collisions.
“Then you put more stress on your hospitals who don’t need it at this time in case they have to be prepared for the virus. It’s a total snowball effect,” the Huntsville mayor said.
Saunderson said that throughout the crisis, he’s been asking residents not to leave town, including seasonal ones who have chosen to stay at their cottages.
“Stay put and pick a residence and stay in that one for the full duration,” he said.
Will cottage country mayors implement a bylaw that prohibits seasonal residents, visitors?
The three Muskoka and Simcoe County mayors said they’re not looking at implementing a municipal bylaw that disallows people from visiting their seasonal properties at this time.
“That’s not in the cards for a variety of reasons, not the least of which that it would be completely unenforceable,” Smith said.
Terziano echoed the Bracebridge mayor’s statement, saying none of the Muskoka municipalities are talking along the lines of incorporating a cottager ban.
“We’ve had discussions with our public health officials,” Saunderson added. “The impression here has been that in this region, we’re not going to put any bans in place.”
On April 23, Haldimand-Norfolk’s medical officer 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.
— With files from Global News’ Jacquelyn Lebel and The Canadian Press