Ontario’s cottage-country mayors weigh in on new COVID-19 regulations

COVID-19 Measures Photo by Shutterstock/CGN089

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that as of 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, January 14, the province is under stay-at-home orders. The announcement comes after COVID-19 cases reached record highs of over 3,000 per day with Ford saying that the province’s health care system is at the “brink of collapse” trying to manage the growing influx.

The new regulations will last until at least February 11 with the possibility of them being renewed. Part of these regulations include the provincial government asking people not to travel to their cottages or secondary residences except for emergency maintenance.

On Wednesday, the provincial government released a 10-page document elaborating on the new regulations. According to the document, people travelling to a cottage or secondary residence are allowed to do so if the individual intends to be at the property for less than 24 hours or if they intend to reside at the property for at least 14 days.

The government, however, has yet to clarify the meaning of “emergency maintenance,” leaving many cottagers confused as to what warrants a trip to the cottage. But according to these Ontario mayors, the overarching message is clear.

“Everybody should stay home, period,” says Gravenhurst Mayor Paul Kelly. “Whether you’re living in Toronto or living in Muskoka.”

The mayors Cottage Life spoke to recognize that the regulations do not ban cottagers from travelling to their properties, but they’ve asked that cottagers respect the regulations to help stop the spread of the virus.

Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts says that Ford’s announcement only amounts to a request. “Without actual travel bans like they did in Quebec early on, where they said if you’re in this zone, you cannot travel to this other zone, and you have spot checks on license plates, it makes it really hard to enforce,” she says.

While there’s no legal orders to turn people away, the increased population during the off season is causing some municipalities to struggle. “We’ve noticed that our shelves are running bare already because people are coming in and buying up the food,” says North Frontenac Mayor Ron Higgins.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Higgins says he was quite vocal about asking cottagers not to come, but he quickly realized it was a losing battle. “They’re all taxpayers,” he says, “and I can only control what I can control at a municipal level. The directions from the feds and the province, that’s up to each individual on whether they want to follow it or not.”

Instead, Higgins asks cottagers travelling to North Frontenac to follow protocols by bringing their own food and self-isolating for 14 days. He says that 99 per cent of cottagers in the area have diligently followed these protocols.

“Cottagers aren’t a bunch of thugs coming up here to party and stay up all night and run all over the place,” says City of Kawartha Lakes Mayor Andy Letham. “They’re a big part of our community. They volunteer, they donate, they support our local businesses.” It makes it much harder to turn them away, he adds.

As for people who have been living at their cottages since the start of the pandemic, treating it as their main residence, the mayors say they are welcome to stay. “I think the point [of the regulations] is that you pick a place and that’s where you stay,” says Kelly. “You’re not going back and forth.”

If an emergency does come up and you need to visit your cottage, the mayors ask that you make sure it’s essential and that you keep your contact with the community to a minimum. “Don’t come up and say it’s essential because you wanted to shovel your rink on the lake,” Roberts says.

Kelly concurs, adding that his interpretation of “emergency” includes something like a burst pipe or a tree having fallen on the cottage—an issue that needs to be rectified immediately to avoid further damage.

If you are worried about your cottage, Kelly suggests asking a neighbour or someone in the area to check in on it every so often. Roberts adds that many people use a driveway shoveling service in the winter that could check on it, or to reach out to your local lake association. Letham recommended calling your local OPP dispatch to see if they’d look in on your property. And in North Frontenac, Higgins says there’s actually a business you can pay to have check your cottage.

To further clarify regulations, all mayors will be meeting with Ford on Thursday. But in the meantime, Kelly says: “They’re saying it over and over again. If you’re not sure whether you’re allowed to go or not, then the answer is stay home.”

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