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Dreaming of a winter staycation? Experts say ‘mindful’ planning needed

Click to play video 'Saskatchewan resort providing staycation destination for locals' Saskatchewan resort providing staycation destination for locals
WATCH: Saskatchewan resort providing staycation destination for locals – Sep 20, 2020

Escaping to a hot destination isn’t as simple as it once was for many Canadians. But how tangible are staycations?

The second surge of the coronavirus in Canada has ushered in new rounds of lockdowns, freshly tangled webs of restrictions and recommendations — including warnings against non-essential travel — and unique seasonal risks.

Read more: Are the holidays cancelled? Before you book that ticket, here’s what experts say

What kind of travel is considered “essential” differs by province and region, but experts say a getaway in your own province might be within reach.

“Mindfulness is what’s really important. It’s mindfulness about keeping social contact to a minimum,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“If you’re being really virtuous, if you’re being really good, putting on a mask and going up to a cottage ought to be fine.”

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Seasonal changes

The first thing to remember is that “a lot has changed since summer,” said Furness, so what you knew about intra-provincial travel guidelines might have changed.

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Staycation Box brings the vacation to you – Oct 19, 2020

Public health guidance has varied by province from the get-go, but it’s also varied by season.

Warmer weather and dropping infection rates led many parts of Canada to reopen economies and ease restrictions on summertime getaways like camping and short-term rentals.

British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Ontario all relaxed travel within the provinces in the summer, allowing things like hotels, motels, hostels and RV parks to resume with restrictions. Ontario even reopened tour services, like those at local wineries and breweries.

As cases rose by early fall, governments grabbed the hammer once again — this time lowering the boom more regionally.

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Read more: British Columbia imposes province-wide travel restrictions

In Ontario, regions like Toronto and Peel are under maximum measures (lockdown), where a stay-at-home order has been revived and travel outside of your own community should be avoided. The rules relax incrementally, depending on a region’s designated level.

In B.C., officials offer a blanket recommendation, advising people to “stay local” and avoid non-essential travel within the province.

But in Quebec and Alberta, there’s a little more give. “Responsible travel” within Alberta is permitted, according to the government’s website, so long as people abide by mandatory restrictions. In Quebec, travel from the maximum red zone to a lesser green, yellow or orange zone is “not recommended,” but travel between regions and cities in green and yellow zones is allowed. Private indoor gatherings at homes and cottages can have a maximum of six people in those orange zones, and 10 in yellow.

With the concept of “bubbling” gone, much of the ever-changing rules are underscored by the “stick with your household” rules, said Furness, especially when indoors.

Click to play video 'Atlantic bubble holding COVID-19 cases at bay' Atlantic bubble holding COVID-19 cases at bay
Atlantic bubble holding COVID-19 cases at bay – Nov 15, 2020

He said the same rule should be upheld if you’re thinking about a snowscape holiday at a cottage.

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“In cold weather, the virus lasts a lot longer, so everything we knew about being outside and safe and not having to wear masks outside, that’s more of a question mark now,” Furness said.

“It’s best to not increase your social contacts beyond your usual routines. If you’re thinking about renting a cottage, you have to be really disciplined about that.”

Cabins and lodges and yurts — Oh my?

Restrictions are still aplenty among provinces battling the virus’ resurgence.

In Toronto and Peel, no new reservations for short-term rentals are allowed. However, the rule doesn’t apply to hotels, motels, lodges or resorts.

Read more: Cottage prices rise as more Canadians look toward future of full-time remote work

Some Ontario lodges have capitalized on the wanderlust of a winter getaway, organizing Instagram contests to win a weekend stay at an off-grid cottage or an eco-friendly cabin.

But many are asking those in lockdown-zones to stay away. Prince Edward County, Muskoka and Collingwood are asking visitors from Toronto and Peel to stay put, even if the province hasn’t implemented any travel restrictions.

No matter where you’re from, a staycation will require “mindfulness,” Furness said.

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The more isolated the cottage, the better, he said. If groceries can be brought with you, even better yet.

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Coronavirus: Real estate market in Ontario’s cottage country experiencing boom – Jul 23, 2020

He noted that grocery shopping is not particularly dangerous, but that there’s a potential “aggregate” effect associated with escaping to other regions for a seasonal break.

“The cumulative effect can be quite dangerous,” he said.

“Going to your cottage, wearing your mask and buying groceries — that’s not dangerous. It’s when thousands of people do that in the same place.”

“So you have to ask yourself — are you putting fuel on a fire? Are you going to a place hundreds of others from your town are going?”

At this point in the pandemic, experts strongly advise against places like hotels and bed and breakfasts, unless deemed absolutely essential.

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Furness said these accommodations inevitably involve more points of contact than, say, a cottage trip with strictly your household and a trunk-full of groceries.

“It’s less attractive in terms of risk. You’re in close quarters. There are elevators and lobbies,” he said.

“Plus, you’re sharing air. If you’re in a B&B, even if you’re just in your room, there’s forced air circulation. So now you’re sharing air. You’re certainly not going to sit around in your room with a mask on.”

Read more: Ski industry braces for impact of B.C. province-wide travel restrictions

But certain behaviour is “uncontrollable” in different urban centres, Raywat Deonandan, an Ottawa-based epidemiologist, said in a previous interview.

It’s why much of Canada is in the dire predicament it’s in, he added. It comes down to limiting your exposures, he said on Twitter.

“Ultimately, this is always in the hands of people to voluntarily limit our individual exposures,” he said.

“If enough people had done that, we would not be in this position, probably.”

Way of the future?

Furness said his own immediate family has cottage plans on the horizon.

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“The whole point is that we’re not going to see anybody at all,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a downside there.”

Click to play video 'Ontario government pitches 2021 as ‘year of the Ontario staycation’' Ontario government pitches 2021 as ‘year of the Ontario staycation’
Ontario government pitches 2021 as ‘year of the Ontario staycation’ – Nov 5, 2020

With international travel on ice and inter-provincial sojourns becoming increasingly risky, should you plan a trip to a cottage a few hours away?

“That’s virtuous,” said Furness. “Within your own household, to rent a cottage — that is to say solitary things, not social things — that’s a fine thing to do.”

“I don’t want anyone on an aeroplane, I don’t want anyone on a really long trip because the contacts just multiply.”

And it may be the way of the future, experts believe. While a vaccine is quickly looking like a reality, it will still take time before it’s safe enough to board a long flight overseas.

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Ontario is thinking ahead — possibly with that travel delay in mind. The province recently dubbed 2021 the “year of the Ontario staycation,” proposing a tax credit to incentivize people to travel within the province.

However, the provinces’ finance minister stressed, it’ll only happen once it’s safe to do so.