Should Manitobans be allowed to visit their Ontario cottages? 

Manitobans are crossing the border to vacation in Ontario — leading to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and the local health-care system’s ability to handle it 
By Jon Thompson - Published on May 13, 2020
Kenora, a city of 15,000, has an $85 million annual tourism industry. (Jon Thompson)

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If Anneke Gillis hadn’t broken her tooth on an olive pit, she and her family would have spent the lockdown at their cabin near Kenora instead of being stuck two hours away at their home in Winnipeg.

Waiting out COVID-19 restrictions at camp was the plan for the Kenora Chiefs Advisory consultant and former physician-recruitment lead for the tourist city of 15,000, located near the Manitoba border. But, on April 12, her tooth split down to the nerve, and her dentist had to open for the emergency procedure in Kenora. Aware of resource scarcity in the rural health-care system in which she works, Gillis made the call to go back home. “Afterwards, I thought, you know, that's a real stress for families. So I was listening to all the recommendations, and I just kind of thought, you know what? My primary-care physician and my dad, my acute-care hospital that I'm supposed to go to, are all in Winnipeg — so I should really be close to that.”

On May 7, David Williams, Ontario’s chief public-health officer, and Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public-health officer both repeated their recommendation that cottagers, such as Gillis, stay home. Premier Doug Ford and Kenora–Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, who called Manitobans “our peeps,” have urged those who own summer homes to stay in the city. But Manitoban vacationers continue to arrive at the border separating urban Winnipeg from lake life in northwestern Ontario, leading to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and the local health-care system’s ability to handle it. 

The Manitoba government has been handing out pamphlets at the tourism-information centre on the Ontario border to discourage Lake of the Woods summer residents from visiting their camps. But Dan Reynard, the mayor of Kenora — which has an $85 million annual tourism industry — doesn’t think such efforts are holding many back. “It’s obvious that some are still coming into the community: they’re everywhere,” says Reynard, who recalls having seen Manitoba licence plates as far back as early May and long lines at Walmart. “I can understand if you’ve been cooped up since the middle of March — people are probably wanting to come down and get their cottages ready,” he says. “But unless you’re hauling your boat, you can’t even get out on the water.” 

Kenora Chamber of Commerce president Andy Scribilo was lobbying hard for marina owners to be allowed to gear up, but, while most of his membership can’t legally operate, he’s seeing crowds flock to big-box grocery and retail. “Canadian Tire is killing it right now with their curbside [pickup]. I’ve been at Home Hardware, and they have tons of people coming to get stuff,” he says. “All we can do is educate people: there's nothing really to do downtown right now. Like, you can order your stuff and go pick it up, but you can't sit in the park. You can't sit outside and eat.” 

The Northwestern Health Unit hasn’t reported a positive COVID-19 test in its catchment area — which includes the Kenora and Rainy River districts — for two weeks. Of its 16 cases, only two were living in that city: a couple who had quarantined in their home after returning from travelling within Canada. The Lake of the Woods District Hospital has since begun onsite testing, turning around as many as four sets of results every hour.

But there remain concerns that, if cases were to increase, health-care capacity would be stretched. As of March 30, five Kenora doctors were in quarantine (none tested positive for COVID-19); the hospital has only four ICU beds. There isn’t a walk-in clinic for hundreds of kilometres.

Little can be done to keep cottagers away, says Ian Gemmill, the Northwestern Health Unit’s interim medical officer of health, noting that it would be “difficult” to implement a cottage registration, which would require checking every lakefront property — including those on the shores of thousands of islands on Lake of the Woods — for occupants. “These are the things that are going to create a spike in the curve again,” he says of tourists. “This is like you’re draining a hose, and now you’ve got your finger on the hose and you’re trying to stop it. It’s trickling, but you know as soon as you let go, you’re going to have a steady flow.” He wonders to what extent COVID-19 measures can be relaxed without harming the local population. “It’s not time for people to relax. It’s time for people to be following the personal-protective measures we’ve always mentioned, because that’s what’s going to keep individuals safe.”

Ray Racette, president of the Lake of the Woods District Hospital, says that, since the lockdown began in March, he hasn’t seen any weekend patient spikes that could be attributed to an influx of non-residents. He understands the need to balance safety and the economy, he says, but adds that inconsistent advice across jurisdictions is proving a challenge to digest on both sides of the Ontario-Manitoba border: “You don't have a closed border. Then you have the odd problem where one province is more open than the other. You also have people from our area going up to Falcon Lake and West Hawk Lake in Manitoba. So you have sort of this back and forth between communities.” 

A spokesperson for the Solicitor General of Ontario told TVO.org via email that “we know that many Ontarians are in a position that requires them to travel across provincial borders on a regular basis. We continue to urge Ontarians and Manitobans alike to respect the guidelines laid out by health officials and continue to limit non-essential travel across the Ontario-Manitoba border.” They also confirmed that, “at this time, the government is not considering an Emergency Order related to interprovincial travel.”

Back in Winnipeg, Gillis is watching the battles rage on social media between camp owners who feel they should be allowed to be at the lake and locals who are worried about Kenora’s health-care capacity and other pressing local issues. The city is facing a low-income housing crisis, a rise in crystal-methamphetamine use, human trafficking, and limited resources for the homeless. One city boat launch was closed due to its proximity to a hockey arena that has been transformed into an isolation centre for homeless and under-housed people showing COVID-19 symptoms. 

 “We have to find a balance for those two demographics,” Gillis says of the out-of-towners and the locals, “so people who actually own cottages will listen to the message and still be eager to contribute to the economy once this all goes away and starts to open up.” 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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