COLLINGWOOD, ONT. — Is the coronavirus crisis causing small town Ontario to roll up the welcome mat?
Last week, Collingwood council voted 5-4 in favour of asking the province to restrict Ontarians from travelling outside their own communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s migration of large urban populations into our small urban catchment area and putting extra pressure on our resources for our residents,” Coun. Kathy Jeffery said during a special remote meeting of council.
The province should make a statement that prohibits people with no connection to the community, from visiting this vacation mecca, along the shores of southern Georgian Bay, in order to “prohibit the derailment of our small community resources,” she said.
Throughout Canada, small communities that typically attract large numbers of seasonal visitors are grappling — like the rest of the world — with how to deal with the highly infectious deadly virus that knows no borders.
Mayors are torn about how to tell those who own cottages not to travel to their second homes to ride out the pandemic, while short-term rental platforms still have listings that advertise places to “isolate” in rural areas.
Last week, Premier Doug Ford asked people to stay away from cottage country, in response to local mayors who are worried that an influx of visitors will put a strain on healthcare facilities in their region.
But Ford stopped short of following Quebec’s lead, which banned non-essential travel within the province this week, enacted an immediate ban on short-term rentals and closed off rural areas. The province also added checkpoints to limit travel to four regions to essential services only.
Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson said he and the other councillors who voted in favour of the travel ban were merely echoing what Ford and others have said about the need to stay put.
“Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, stated in no uncertain terms that this is not the time to head for a cottage, cabin or camp,” Saunderson wrote in a tweet.
Saunderson said there is good reason to tell weekenders — and daytrippers — to stay home. The town’s permanent population is between 22,000 and 24,000, with between 6,000 and 8,000 part-time residents.
“If you are here, and somebody gets the illness, you’re away from your primary care … out of your natural support structures and you’re going to be in a foreign hospital in potentially life-threatening circumstances,” he said.
“If you do get ill, where do you want to be treated?”
The Simcoe Muskoka health unit had 71 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday. That compares to 812 confirmed cases in Toronto as of Friday, according to that city’s public health.
The North Simcoe Muskoka health network, which includes hospitals in Collingwood and Barrie and stretches up to Huntsville, normally has 48 critical care beds. Hospitals in central Toronto, meanwhile, normally have a combined 373 beds.
A few kilometres down Highway 26 in Thornbury, Town of the Blue Mountains Mayor Alar Soever said he has no issue at all with weekenders coming to self-isolate in a beautiful setting — even if it is from inside the confines of their second homes.
He can tell by the amount of garbage being put out for weekly collection that there is a noticeable influx of people to the area, particularly during what is now the “shoulder season” between winter and summer.
That unexpected surge in the population “did put a run on the grocery store. Last week the shelves were pretty bare … but they’re pretty much caught up now.”
But seasonal residents — who pay the same property taxes as full-time residents — are not only entitled to be here “many of them volunteer with local organizations and donate to the local hospital and they’re all part of our community. I don’t think when you have something like this, and they’re up here being responsible, you say ‘no you can’t come.'”
Goderich Mayor John Grace said he’s heard of many cottagers wanting to spend their self-isolation in the cottages near Lake Huron, in the community of 8,000.
“People who have cottages may want to retreat from the city. If I was in their circumstances, I probably would too,” he said. “It’s a fine edge, because yes, you are a taxpayer in this area and so you are entitled to come.”
He said if they do come, the best thing is for them to bring food supplies and medication with them, follow the rules of social distancing, and have an exit plan in case they get sick when they’re there.
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“The best-case scenario would be to stay at home, but if you can’t, put these measures in place that doesn’t burden the smaller communities that are already feeling stressed and have limited capacity,” said Grace, who said he’s been getting calls from concerned residents. “We would love you to be here, but not today.”
The Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Association (FOCA), which represents people who live at the waterfront, has delivered the same message of staying local, but if you come, bring your own provisions.
“Many are concerned that any transiting increases the chance for spread of illness,” FOCA says online. “Many of us wouldn’t ordinarily open the cottage until nearer to the May long weekend. As we already know from our local grocery experiences, parts of the supply chain are under strain.”
Transient tourists, or daytrippers, on the other hand, are something else, Blue Mountain’s Soever said: “Tourism at this point in time should be the least of anybody’s priorities.”
Yet to his dismay, some property holders in the region — and beyond — appear to be using the crisis to lure guests, even if it is to augment their rental income losses due to coronavirus cancellations.
“Get out of the city and isolate you and your family — $1200 for the week,” reads an advertisement on short-term rental platform VRBO. The listing also boasts a year-round hot tub, and seasonal pool for use in a community near Blue Mountain ski resort.
“Isolate in private quiet Cottage with newer HotTub,” reads a listing for a cottage in Gravenhurst.
“That’s very deplorable that people would use peoples’ fear to try and generate business for themselves,” said Soever.
According to Fairbnb, a national coalition of organizations calling for fair regulations for short-term rentals, there were around 80 postings up last week in Ontario using the terms “isolation” and/or “quarantine” in their descriptions.
“The majority of these listings are in rural areas, marketed towards urbanites seeking to escape COVID-19 in cities, but this creates a new risk vector in regions and communities that may not yet have been exposed,” said Thorben Wieditz, a spokesman.
Wieditz said his group was calling on the province to ban short-term rentals during the pandemic.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs said it was up to municipalities to decide whether or not to restrict the use of short-term rentals.
Airbnb said it has updated its rules so that hosts can’t refer to COVID-19, coronavirus, or quarantine in listing titles, or encourage guests to ignore health or travel advisories, among other restrictions.
“We are still in the process of addressing some of the listings and welcome any flags from the community on listings that should be reviewed under this new policy,” said spokesman Charlie Urbancic.
VRBO has also advised hosts to avoid terms like “COVID-free” or “other language that may result in a traveller viewing it as any kind of guarantee or official status for a property.”
Correction – April. 3, 2020: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly said the Muskoka region has 48 critical care beds. In fact, that is number of critical care beds in the North Simcoe Muskoka health network. In fact, the local Muskoka hospital has 9 critical care beds with the potential to add two more.