Cottagers in the Ontario counties of Haldimand and Norfolk have been banned from occupying their secondary residences. Shanker Nesathurai, the medical officer of health for the area, enacted Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to prevent the inadvertent spread of COVID-19 from city dwellers travelling to their cottages.
The order states that people “are not permitted to occupy [their] secondary residence within the Health Unit, which includes a rented cottage, vacation home, beach house, chalet, and/or condominium.” And they “are not permitted to allow anyone else to occupy [their] secondary residence within the Health Unit.” Anyone found breaching this order could face a fine of up to $5,000 a day.
Both Haldimand County and Norfolk County, which are located along the north shore of Lake Erie, have large cottage populations, primarily focused in Port Dover, Turkey Point, and Long Point. Many of the cottagers are concerned that this ban could prove problematic moving into the spring.
“Three weeks ago we were hit big time by massive flooding,” says Karen Deans, president of the Long Point Ratepayers’ Association. One of Deans’ Long Point neighbours had four feet of water in her basement. Another neighbour had such severe flooding that they had to rip out two rooms. “These people are trying to get contractors in, but they’re not deemed essential,” Deans says. “They’ve got to get sump pumps into the water that’s still coming in, but they’re not supposed to be down there according to this order.”
While the order has good intentions, what’s incensed cottagers is the way in which it was delivered. “The whole process was cloak and dagger. I could not get any information on this,” Deans says.
Deans first heard about the order while watching the April 26 broadcast of the Norfolk County council meeting from her home. “The medical officer for Haldimand and Norfolk was doing a slide presentation about COVID, and in this slide presentation, there was actually one particular slide with six items on it. It was about the prohibition of cottagers from occupying their vacation homes,” she says. The council moved past the prohibition without discussing it.
In that moment, Deans’ phone started blowing up with messages from concerned Long Point members also watching the council meeting. In order to get to the bottom of what was happening, Deans spent the next day emailing her Norfolk ward councillor and the Haldimand-Norfolk Health and Social Services department for a copy of the presentation. “Didn’t get a response from the health department,” she says. “And then our councillor came back to me on Wednesday, [April 27] and said, ‘I can’t give you the contents. You’ll be getting it in a little while.’”
As far as Deans is concerned, the presentation had been aired in a public forum and therefore should be available to the public. Taking her investigation a step further, she called Andy Grozelle, the county clerk. As it turned out, he didn’t have a copy either. The first copy he received was a leaked version Deans secured and forwarded to him on Thursday, April 30. “I read it and, afterwards, it was the accurate document,” he confirms.
On May 1, the order was served via Canada Post to 43,000 property owners in Haldimand County and Norfolk County who have a primary residence outside of the area. The order, however, was dated April 23.
What Deans found troubling about the situation is that there was no consultation or forewarning given to cottagers before the order was sent out. All of a sudden, they were banned from going. She knows a few cottagers who have broken the order to check on the flooding situation at their properties. One cottager was so worried about being caught by the municipality that they raked the tire tracks off their driveway. “This is just beyond surreal. It’s utter madness to rake your driveway to hide your tracks because you’re a taxpaying citizen,” Deans says.
Kristal Chopp, mayor of Norfolk County, along with Ken Hewitt, the mayor of Haldimand County, first became aware of the order on April 22 after it had already been written up. It was their decision to mail the order rather than disseminate it in a media release. “We came to that agreement to try to give us some additional time because Mayor Hewitt and I felt that this was something that was significant,” Chopp says. The order specifies that it takes effect once it has been served to a person.
Banning cottagers from her county is the last thing Chopp expected to be doing leading into this summer. “Those people drive our economy,” she says. “So, is this gut-wrenching as a politician? Yes, it is.” She stresses that she had no say in the order because it’s a health issue rather than a political issue, but she stands by Nesathurai’s decision, particularly because Norfolk County has already been hit hard by COVID-19.
“We had a major breakout in one of our long term care facilities,” Chopp says. “Thirty people died.” She adds that with five ICU beds and only one ventilator, the area’s hospital is not equipped to handle a mass outbreak.
The situation only seems to be getting worse as the county had to deal with a mass group of day-trippers last week. “In Port Dover on Sunday, it was a mini Friday the 13th,” she says. “It was into the thousand plus bikers easy that day. They were parked in a parking lot. There was zero social distancing going on.” With only six bylaw officers for the county, Chopp says Norfolk does not have the staff to police mass groups of day-trippers and cottagers.
Chopp was able to air her concerns this week during a conference call about slowly reopening cottage country with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and a couple hundred other Ontario mayors. “Mayor Hewitt and I said, ‘Listen, you’ve been saying please do the right thing and limit your travel to essential travel for the last few weeks and unfortunately that hasn’t been working.'” Chopp then asked if the provincial government would be willing to offer additional support and expanded authority to the OPP. “They said they would get back to me.”
Despite Chopp’s attempts to manage the situation, the backlash from cottage constituents has caused Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams to voice his opinion. In a memo sent to local medical officers across the province, Williams wrote, “My current recommendation is to not prohibit access to secondary residences through legal order but to continue to provide communications that discourage their use. I similarly recommend that medical officers of health do not issue Section 22 class orders under the HPPA prohibiting access to these residences.”
Chopp says that moving forward, Nesathurai “has agreed that he will continuously re-evaluate the order.”