Health authorities share call to limit visits to cottage country amid pandemic
Health authorities at all levels of government have cautioned against visits to cottage country to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in more rural areas.
A number of mayors and regional public health officers have expressed concerns about having an onslaught of visitors in their communities where they have less robust health-care systems to treat COVID-19 cases.
Haldimand-Norfolk’s medical officer of health went so far as to issue a ban preventing people from accessing their second properties until COVID-19’s spread has further subsided.
In an interview on CTV News on Wednesday, Norfolk County Mayor Kristal Chopp said there’s already been issues with enforcement as big crowds descend on the beach town of Port Dover.
"In our case, there is no gradual reopening. Whether it’s seasonal cottagers, boaters, migrant workers, it’s zero to a thousand overnight in our small communities. That becomes a challenge not just from health care capacity but also supply chain, basic commodities, enforcement and so on," said Chopp.
"We have one hospital that has one ICU bed and one ventilator, and so we don’t have a big margin for error."
Chris Bradley, a cottager in Norfolk County and a board member of the Long Point Ratepayers’ Association, said the order, sent out on May 1, left many confused as those in neighbouring regions weren’t put under the same restrictions.
"We’re as confused as anyone else," said Bradley in an interview on CTV News on Friday.
"It came as a total shock to all of us because there was no advanced warning or anything of that nature, no consultation with the cottage associations."
He said it’s necessary for cottagers to check up on their properties at this time for safety hazards like mold exposure or flooding damage.
"This isn’t I’ll say about vacationing for us, it’s for some, it comes down to make sure that the places we own are being protected. Personally, my family has experienced a great deal of loss as a result of flood damage and we really don’t want others to go through those types of things because of conflicting messages that’s coming from our local officials."
Phil Harding, mayor of the Township of Muskoka Lakes, says seasonal residents represent roughly 80 per cent of the region's population and a significant portion of the local tax base as well.
"We probably represent, across the three big Muskoka lakes, close to $15 billion worth of assessed value," Harding told CTV News Toronto.
"When you have 80 per cent of the people who have that significant of an investment in this province and in the area, they want to check on their properties -- and I respect that."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been asked to respond to these orders and whether his government has plans to intervene. While he previously stated that he couldn’t "hold taxpayers back from going to their cottages," on Thursday he changed his tune.
"I know Ontarians are eager to enjoy the great outdoors, but there will be plenty of long weekends to come,” he said in a statement. “Right now, we need to focus on doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians. We’re all in this together and together we will beat COVID-19."
Ford acknowledged the patchwork of responses to reopening – as some municipalities are moving faster than others to return to some state of normalcy.
"While Ontario is vast and regions are facing the challenges of COVID-19 differently, it is more important than ever that we stick together and fight COVID-19 as one team," the statement read.
This comes amid criticism of his own visit to his cottage over the Easter weekend. Ford on Friday said he went up in the early morning on Easter Sunday to check on plumbing.
"I drove up there, checked it out, made sure everything was OK – it was. I literally hopped back in my truck and drove right back, I was back by noon. That’s what happened," he said during a press briefing.
Ontario’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. David Williams also weighed in, stating that while he recommends cottage owners remain at home during this time, he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to prohibit access.
Federal health authorities shared similar sentiments.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said there are a host of public health reasons why people should remain at their primary residence instead of venturing to areas with less capacity to handle a potential outbreak.
"There will be some variations between provinces and territories, but the fundamental principle I think being that if you ventured into an area that has low capacity for example, more remote, more rural where the access is an issue and you may impact the local community, that's I think the highest concern of public health authorities," said Tam during a Thursday press briefing.
Dr. Tam said going outside, however, is permissible and encouraged so long as people maintain physical distancing guidelines and reassured that restrictions on visits to parks and other recreational sites would be lifted in the months to come, province by province.
"What is important is that you're seeing provinces and territories recognizing that people need to get outside and that one of the first phases of easing off public health measures, is to ensure that people who haven't been asked specifically to stay indoors can go out and still maintain some physical distancing and the hygienic measures," she said.
"For the sake of mental health, physical health, that is actually important."
In a tweet published Thursday, Health Canada said if cottage owners need to take a trip up to their property for "insurance purposes" to make it a day trip only.
With files from CTV News Toronto’s Colin D’Mello