The approach of Victoria Day long weekend — the starting pistol for cottage travel for many in Ontario and across the country — coinciding with a deadly pandemic brings fear of “a civil war” between cottagers and residents of Canada’s waterfront regions.
With concerns that cottage owners from cities with higher COVID-19 caseloads may spread the coronavirus or drain the small grocery and health-care resources of rural communities, the usually warm welcome for summer residents is in a deep chill.
“There is lots of tension between the seasonal and the permanent residents,” said Chris Peabody, mayor of Brockton, Ontario, 190 kilometres northwest of Toronto, which is bisected by the Saugeen River, popular with canoeists and anglers.
“We do not want to start a civil war with our cottagers.”
For some, conflict is already here.
There are some people who are fearful for their lives. They’re really scared
Some popular destinations have issued a ban against cottage owners coming to their property; others discourage cottagers by shutting off their water or closing boat ramps. Others are just pleading with cottagers to stay away.
“It’s a struggle we are all facing as mayors. It is not fun times,” said Mitch Twolan, mayor of Huron-Kinross in southwestern Ontario, which includes a stretch of Lake Huron waterfront. In March he ordered water service to seasonal properties shut off.
“I get it: people want to get away to some form of semblance of their regular life, to put everything else behind. But that’s where the angst is, because for their self-comfort and their mental health and wellbeing they come and they put their thoughts ahead of people who are here year-round.
“There are some people who are fearful for their lives. They’re really scared. We do have folks that decided that, in their best interests they have a right, because they’re a taxpayer, to drive back and forth. So you try to make a decision, it’s the not the most popular decision all the time.”
For Twolan, it is not theoretical.
He said a cottager from Kitchener-Waterloo region was treated in the area’s hospital in Kincardine and later tested positive for COVID-19, sending three or four nurses home for 14 days of quarantine.
“That was what we are all scared of and it happened,” Twolan said.
Many seasonal property owners are pushing back.
Bill Armstrong, who lives in Aurora, north of Toronto, owns a cottage on Horse Island in Carling Township, not far from Ontario’s Killbear Provincial Park, which requires a boat to get to. The municipality has closed boat ramps, leaving him unable to get to his second home, he said.
In response, he is sending regular “invoices” to the township for its “rental” of his cottage at $1,500 a week. He said he also plans to hold the township liable for preventing him from checking his property after the winter, as his insurance policy requires.
“We’re all just fuming,” he said. He warned that if cottagers aren’t welcome now, cottagers might not want to spend their money in the communities in the future.
Allane Andrusko, a cottage owner in Prince Edward County, said if the municipality bans cottagers from their property it will spark a legal fight.
“I will initiate a small claims court action requesting a refund of all fixed costs for the period they told me to stay away and then ordered me to stay away. This includes taxes, insurance and hydro.”
David Kreaden, a Toronto medical doctor and cottage owner, argued it is safer to stay in his cottage.
“It is much easier to isolate in the cottage setting than it is in a high-rise in Toronto having to use the elevator multiple times a day,” he said. He disputed suggestions he might be a burden on local health care if he has COVID-19: “I daresay it would prompt a quick return to the city.”
Complaints of seasonal owners are not drawing sympathy from many permanent residents.
“We don’t need any extra pressures on our modest hospitals,” said Brian Burke, a resident of Norfolk County in southern Ontario, where the medical officer of health has issued an emergency health order banning seasonal owners from occupying their property.
“Staring at our COVID numbers the past few weeks, the thought of even something as simple as someone from out of town falling off their bicycle and breaking their arm is terrifying — we simply don’t have any room for error here.”
We’re all just fuming
Other residents use social media to try to shame out-of-towners by posting photos of tourists stocking up in local stores.
Cottage country mayors are looking to the Ontario government to bring province-wide rules before the Victoria Day weekend, several said.
Premier Doug Ford, who will be speaking with cottage country mayors this week, said he won’t bring in a ban.
“You have to give a little leniency. If you put down the hammer and say you just aren’t coming, well, people aren’t going to listen,” Ford said.
That sentiment is reflected in a memo dated May 3 from Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer, sent to municipal medical officers of health, obtained by National Post.
“My current recommendation is to not prohibit access to secondary residences through legal order, but to continue to provide communications that discourage their use,” it says.
Williams also advised against medical officers of health issuing broad prohibitions against access to seasonal property under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, as was done in Haldimand and Norfolk counties.
Ford said his a message to cottage country is: “Be prepared, people are coming up on May the 24th.”