By Jenn Watt
Residents returning to their cottages are being asked by Premier Doug Ford and municipal politicians to enjoy the long weekend in a more low-key fashion.
No big gatherings no outdoor fires no fireworks.
Although seasonal residents were never banned from visiting their properties advice from the provincial government had asked that they avoid doing so to control the spread of the coronavirus and to limit demand on rural health-care systems and grocery stores.
On May 7 the premier released a message following a conference call with cottage country municipal leaders asking that those returning to their secondary properties continue to practice COVID-19 protocols and do what they can to reduce their impact on area services.
“We are still battling a terrible virus so we are asking seasonal residents travelling to their cottages to practice the same public health measures as usual including no public gatherings avoiding nonessential travel as much as possible and continue to practice social distancing” Ford said in a prepared statement.
While seasonal residents were given guidance on returning Ford asked that tourists continue to postpone their visits to cottage country.
“I know Ontarians are eager to enjoy the great outdoors but there will be plenty of long weekends to come. Right now we need to focus on doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians. We’re all in this together and together we will beat COVID-19” he said.
In Haliburton County municipal leaders are offering a welcome to seasonal residents while reiterating the importance of physical distancing and scaling back the size of any planned gatherings.
“Bring supplies and everything you might need with you practice physical distancing don’t travel unless you consider it to be absolutely necessary and refrain from congregating in numbers over five. Respect the guidelines that have been set out by the province to protect the health of not only yourself but others around you” Haliburton County Warden Liz Danielsen said via email. “We also ask our visitors to remember that now is not a time to let our guard down. Health officials continue to warn that the number of asymptomatic people continues to be much larger than any of us realize and keeping our numbers down remains extremely important.”
Danielsen was on the call with the premier last week which she said offered a window into the varying opinions from across the province on how to most safely begin to return to a type of normality.
“Opinions on whether or not to loosen restrictions in cottage country for the May 24 weekend varied from those wanting seasonal residents and tourists alike to come to cottage country to those who were much more cautious asking for opening of restrictions to be delayed for another week or two” she said.
Throughout the pandemic Danielsen’s message to seasonal residents has been to exercise caution if travelling to the county.
“All of the heads of council in the county have been of one voice when we say that we recognize the rights of people who own seasonal homes here in Haliburton” she said. “They contribute significantly to our economy they pay the same taxes as permanent residents and we have hesitated to tell them that they cannot come to their homes to check on them or to isolate their own families in a place that they feel could be safer and healthier than being closed in in the city. In fact we do not have the power to restrict access to the county. We only ask that they acknowledge that our health system here in the county is fragile and supplies can be limited in some cases.”
Warnings in the past from the premier as well as mayors in other parts of the province that seasonal property owners should stay home had led to hard feelings and harsh comments on social media over the last several weeks.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts referenced the debate in a message to seasonal residents on May 8.
“One of the [early] messages from the federal and provincial governments was to stay away from your cottage cabin or second property. It was crucial for travel to stop even between communities so health officials could do contact tracing and try to stop the spread of this powerful and devastating virus” Roberts’s message reads. “We never had any authority to ban travel into or out of our community and we know some people decided to isolate here in Dysart at their cottage. However that messaging created some frustration and confusion for seasonal communities which then led to some very unfair and unkind comments.”
Danielsen said she understood there was worry that an influx of cottagers could bring an increased risk of COVID-19 cases and said the municipalities had been putting out consistent messaging about provincial guidelines and best practices. She also referenced unkind comments coming from this concern.
“Remember that we all have equal rights and are going through this struggle together. Finger pointing and accusations will ultimately hurt the reputation that we have all worked so hard to create as not just a beautiful place to create memories but a place that truly welcomes visitors year round” she said.
“I would ask everyone to remember that we all love the Haliburton Highlands equally whether a full-time resident or a cottager who has returned here for generations. Let’s look forward to the days when we can enjoy the serenity and beauty of this place we all call home in one way or another.”
Roberts had a similar message: “This spring we welcome back our seasonal residents with open arms but six feet apart. So get your gardens raked clean the windows put in the docks repair the little things that always need fixing and plan for the summer ahead. The warmer weather will be here and while the summer of 2020 won’t be the same in the Highlands it will still be a beautiful peaceful place where wonderful family memories will be made. We truly are all in this together so be patient and be kind to each other.