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‘Banner year’ amid coronavirus pandemic for London, Ont.-area beach towns

Two young women sit and talk in a lifeguard tower in Grand Bend, Ontario. Mark Spowart / The Canadian Press

As the summer begins to wind down and students begin to return to school, albeit a little differently than most years, reports are suggesting an impressive season overall for beach towns in the London, Ont., region.

“I’m hearing from retailers and restaurants that they have had a banner year. It has been busier this year than it has been for several summers,” said Susan Mills, manager of the Grand Bend and Area Chamber of Commerce.

Mills believes restrictions on international travel, put in place to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, have actually boosted local tourism.

“Ontarians are vacationing in Ontario. The money is circulating within our own provincial economy. Obviously, people are not going out of the country for their vacations, but they still want to vacation.”

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Colleen Smith, manager of Kazmania, associated with Kazwear Swimwear in Grand Bend, said she was “blown away” by the summer, especially considering all of the unknowns the first few months of the pandemic. Stores were only able to start reopening as the province began moving into Stage 1 in mid- to late-May, while most area beaches didn’t open to the public until late June, though Kazwear Swimwear still prepared for the season as usual since it “already had everything on order.”

“(In) March, we weren’t probably expecting much. We usually open in May and we were about a week late opening. We were expecting it to be a little less people around. So, yes, we were blown away by the summer.”

“In the four years that I’ve been working at this store, yes, this has been one of our best summers.”

Smith believes people were happy to be out of the house and “be somewhere where they could have some fun.” She’s hoping that the trend will continue into September and October as well.

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Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn said once the beaches were open in Port Stanley, they were “extremely busy seven days a week,” though she noted that restaurants, in particular, continue to struggle.

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“I drove down several times a week and it was always busy throughout the whole of the business area as well and all the parking areas were full,” she said.

“I’m sure it’s not as good a season as they would normally get. And certainly, the restaurants have really struggled, but I think it went better than they thought it might.”

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Martyn also said that residents and visitors alike generally respected the rules in place in response to the pandemic.

“They were very cooperative and helpful. Some people would gather in too large a group and you’d have to go over and speak to them. … They did as they were asked and split up.”

In the Grand Bend area, Smith told Global News that she observed many people wearing masks even before they were mandated in Lambton Shores.

“Customers were friendly and nobody seemed to have a big concern about the pandemic, which surprised me a bit. I would say, even before we went to mask-mandatory in Lambton Shores, most people were wearing them because they were coming from areas that were mandatory.”

While Lambton Public Health (which covers Grand Bend) does not report location data, Southwestern Public Health (which covers Port Stanley) had reported a total of five cases of COVID-19 in Central Elgin as of Sept. 9.

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In addition to those coming in for the day, Mills said the summer saw cottagers staying for longer periods in the Grand Bend area.

“Instead of, say, coming out for just the weekend and going back to the city for the week, they have actually stayed out here all summer,” she told Global News.

“So that certainly pushes up sales, just at the gas station and the grocery stores. As well, we’ve had people coming out from the cities for vacation and I think that’s going to push up our home sales. Certainly, home sales in this area are really strong. We’re not seeing any kind of downturn. We’re seeing continued demand, multiple offers on homes.

“In terms of the economy here, locally, it looks like it’s going to be good and I know that’s a little bit of an anomaly.”

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