By Stephen Petrick
There’s no love for some Haliburton County resort hot tubs this summer.
The Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit has been clamping down on the use of outdoor hot tubs, forcing some businesses to drain their tubs and lose the income that comes with offering the luxurious service.
Two resort owners who spoke to the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times are furious with the health unit for enforcing Ontario Health Regulation 565, which they argue is being interpreted incorrectly and isn’t helpful in what they hoped would be a bump up year for tourism after two COVID summers. They say it’s an example of government overreach, at the expense of their livelihoods and the economy.
“We’ve had these hot tubs for over a decade and it’s never been an issue before,” said Megan Heathy-Orr, who owns Buttermilk Falls Resort, one of the affected businesses.
She said a health inspector paid a random visit to her business in July and told her and her husband they must stop offering hot tub services, because the five hot tubs on site were outdoors. This, to the health unit, meant the business should be subjected to regulations which govern the use of outdoor public pools.
The regulation lists 28 different guidelines that a business must adhere to if offering an outdoor public pool, covering issues such as water testing, tracking the number of people entering and several safety-based procedures.
In Buttermilk Falls Resort’s case, the hot tubs might be considered “Class B” pools because it’s located on a property that contains six or more dwellings.
But Heathy-Orr said her business shouldn’t be considered as a private pool operator, because the hot tubs are not intended for community use. Although they’re outdoors, she said they are next to certain cabins and they are only assigned to people in those cabins.
She said the ruling is costing her a lot. Since the decision, she has re-imbursed some guests as much as $200 per week, because they booked cabins on the assumption that they had hot tub service that, in the end, couldn’t be offered.
“By the end of the summer, I’ll have lost a mortgage payment,” she said.
Rob Berthelot, owner of Sandy Lanes Resort, is also outraged with the clamp down. He told The Haliburton Echo/Minden Times that a health unit worker visited his site recently to inspect his kitchen.
The inspector then asked to see the hot tubs, which Berthelot closes for the summer and only offers to guests for the winter months. The inspector then warned Berthelot that he won’t be permitted to offer them to people in the winter as they stand now, because they don’t comply with the health regulation.
Like at Buttermilk Falls Resort, the five hot tubs on site are outdoors, but are assigned to people in particular cabins. They’re not intended for community use, he said.
When Berthelot was asked if it’s possible for him to adjust his business to be in compliance with outdoor pool regulations he said “not a chance,” knowing that the list of regulations is lengthy and meant for big businesses.
While, technically, no order was given to Berthelot, because the hot tubs haven’t been used this summer, he knows the rule will cost him in the winter. In a fiercely- worded email to health unit officials, which he CC’ed to the Haliburton Echo and Minden Times, he revealed that he had to hand back $800 to a guest who had booked a cabin in December, because they wanted the hot tub service.
“We just lost our first clients due to the lack of hot tub in December … I hope you’re happy,” he wrote, sarcastically.
When speaking with The Echo/Times Berthelot said that outdoor hot tubs are an incredible feature to offer in the winter. He explained that he purchased Sandy Lanes in 2018 before the resort had hot tubs. He then installed the tubs and saw a $20,000 difference in revenue, because customers like them so much.
“They get to sit out on the deck and look at the stars and watch the snow fall. It’s nice and peaceful,” he said.
A manager from the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit confirmed to the Echo/Times that staff have been conducting inspections and issuing orders around hot tubs to several Haliburton County businesses of late.
In an email, Health Protection Division manager Richard Ovcharovich, said the regulation is not new, but was revised in 2018.
He explained that the issue started when the health unit learned that the Lakeview Motel had hot tubs that were believed to be not in compliance with the regulation. Inspectors visited and ordered those hot tubs to be closed. The Lakeview Motel owner appealed the decision to the Health Services Review and Appeal Board, but lost the decision.
“Since this decision, our health unit has received several complaints of other travel accommodations within our jurisdiction operating private backyard domestic spas on their premises. We are required to follow-up with such complaints and have done so,” Ovcharovich wrote.
Berthelot and Heathy-Orr are both aware that Lakeview Motel lost its appeal and, because of that, they’re not sure how they can further challenge the ruling in a timely matter. While Berthelot is writing to various officials to say the regulation is being interpreted wrongly, Heathy-Orr believes it’s the rule itself that has to change.
“We need to get this policy changed,” she said. “It comes down to bureaucracy and we all know how slow bureaucracy moves.”
The Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce hopes to support the impacted businesses and is trying to raise awareness of the issue.
An online memo released by Chamber executive director Bob Gaudette, outlines the dissatisfaction in the business community.
“Regulation 565 has been on the books for many years but has never been applied to small resorts/hotels and motels as it is today,” the memo states. “Now, with no outreach, no warning, no education program, and, most importantly,no new health and safety related issues, the resorts are being told to shut down an important revenue stream, one that they have used safely for literally decades.”
The memo also suggests that the strict enforcement is at odds to Ontario’s efforts to boost tourism in a post-COVID era through programs like the Ontario Staycation Tax Credit.
“Customers ask for hot tubs when they book and often do not book when no hot tub is available. These smaller resorts are all struggling to recover from the impact of COVID related closures.”
Heathy-Orr has her own theory; she feels that there’s been a change in culture at the health unit and a new person has come in with a mandate to more strictly enforce rules. But Ovcharovich stressed that’s not the case.
“I can guarantee you that our staff do not have anything to prove. We work with our operators to educate and inform them of the requirements,” he wrote, adding that, although orders were issued, no businesses have not been levied with fines.