This is the second instalment in a four-part series on cottage-country businesses and COVID-19. Read Part 1 here, and watch for Part 3 on Friday.
In the spring, TVO.org spoke with business owners across Ontario’s cottage country — rural areas home to many businesses that rely on a seasonal influx of tourists and part-time residents to survive. Pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as the overall economic shock of the crisis, were a real and present danger to many of these businesses. With August drawing to a close, the pandemic at least temporarily contained in Ontario, and schools set to reopen, TVO.org has been checking in with those communities again. Today, we speak to Denise Benning-Reid, manager of the Bobcaygeon and Area Chamber of Commerce, about how the summer has gone in one of Ontario’s hardest-hit communities.
Author’s note: When I first did this series four months ago, I noted that my family had long ties to the Bobcaygeon area, which was hit hard early in the pandemic by a devastating outbreak at a local nursing home. Bobcaygeon is also, thanks in no small part to a certain song by the Tragically Hip, perhaps a kind of unofficial capital of cottage country. I spoke then with Sherry Peel, owner of Bigley Shoes and Clothing, a major local retailer, who told me not just of the disruption to her business, but to the community. She was not available to be interviewed for this series, but Benning-Reid kindly stepped in to provide this update. She has my thanks.
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Matt Gurney: My last check-in with Bobcaygeon’s businesses was in early May, and the weather hadn’t quite warmed up yet. Things were slow, and people were worried about a lost season that their businesses might not have survived. We’re near the end of August now. How have Bobcaygeon businesses done?
Denise Benning-Reid: I think we’re doing okay. Down on the main street, I’ve checked in with people. Business is down compared to what it has been in the past, but it's okay. The resorts I've talked to — hotels, cottage rentals, trailer parks — have said that business is really going well for them. People aren't travelling. They had to cancel all their travel plans. So the idea of going to a cottage in the country is very appealing. There's no houseboats available for rent. These businesses were really concerned in May. They’d just been through the winter quiet season, and not only could they not open, they didn’t know when they might be able to open. A lot of them couldn’t even get started with opening. When the announcements started coming, saying what could open, we only had days. A business would be told, okay, you can open — on Friday! That was a real challenge.
But now? I spoke to one resort, and they said they've actually caught up for anything that was lost in the spring season. They've made up for it. They're doing really well. So that was really hopeful. I don’t think we’ve lost any businesses directly due to COVID-19. We won't really know until we get through the tourist season. That’s really going to be our gauge to see how COVID has affected our businesses. Some businesses moved to online-only and have found that that is working really well for them, so they don’t need storefronts, but the businesses themselves are still going. That was really encouraging. We’ll know more in a few months.
Gurney: When is your tourism season, generally?
Benning-Reid: A lot depends on the weather. But in really general terms, it’s from May until about Thanksgiving. November is quiet, then there’s a bump in December around Christmas. And then the winter is really quiet. But if the weather is good, more people will come up. So a warm fall can really extend the reason.
Gurney: When I spoke to Sherry Peel in May, a major issue for her was supply chains. She’s in fashion and footwear, and those are highly seasonal, right? So when everything shut down in March, she had winter inventory — and no idea if she was going to get her spring and summer stuff. Have you heard of supply-chain problems locally?
Benning-Reid: Yes. Absolutely. Supply chains are a problem, and it’s frustrating. We can’t really do much about that locally or regionally. These disruptions are global. There is a lumber shortage, for instance.
Gurney: Sorry to interrupt, but my parents, in Toronto, just tried to get a minor repair done on their deck. And guess what? No lumber. My dad eventually found some, but it was hours and hours outside Toronto. He had to go that far just to find pressure-treated wood.
Benning-Reid: Lumber is out everywhere. Our contractors are telling me that. A local window company is running into problems. They can’t get supplies. Our auto guys are having a hard time finding parts. And, like I said, this isn’t a regional problem. We can’t get on the phone with local politicians or other chambers of commerce to fix this. Our retailers are definitely having a hard time getting their inventory stocked up. That’s a logistics challenge that we haven’t experienced before, and it’s definitely having an impact on local businesses. But you know what else is? Fatigue. People are very tired. There are a lot of new things to stay on top of in terms of health and safety, Stage 2 and Stage 3 protocols, having PPE for staff and sanitizer for everyone, adjustments to how we work to be safe and have physical distancing. It’s a lot to do, on top of all the other business challenges that are normal. But I think everybody has really pulled together, and they've done a really great job of making their places welcoming and safe to shop in. And there's been some real creativity in how they are all managing and finding new ways to do business.
Gurney: Let’s spend another minute on supply chains. When I spoke to Peel in May, that was still when Ontarians were being told not to travel. Stay home. Don’t go to your cottages. Some local mayors and community groups in cottage country were very, very angry at visitors from the cities. One of the concerns was that if there were major supply-chain disruptions, rural and remote grocery stores and pharmacies might not be able to meet local needs because fearful city people would have grabbed up all the supplies. I’ve been back and forth between Toronto and cottage country often this summer, and you know what? There’s random shortages of stuff everywhere, but no sign of any major supply issues in cottage country. The stuff you can’t get you can’t get in Toronto, either. Like lumber or yeast, for a while. Does that sound right?
Benning-Reid: Yeah, exactly. We’re having random shortages of certain things. You’ll go to the store, and they’ll be out of something you were expecting. But critical supplies are fine.
Gurney: Everyone still has enough to eat, enough gas for their car, and enough medicine.
Benning-Reid: Exactly. That’s what I’m seeing. And now it’s harvest season, so we’re actually great for food. It might be a challenge in a few months — if there are problems in the U.S. and we can’t get fresh produce from California, for example. I’m not the expert in that. But anecdotally, yeah. The concerns did not end up being something that was a problem.
Gurney: Tourism, to put it mildly, is huge for Bobcaygeon and cottage country generally. I’ve been in Bobcaygeon in the depths of February, and I’ve seen it on long weekends in July, and it’s awfully noticeable. The scale is just wildly different. But let me ask you a basic question: In Bobcaygeon, what is tourism? What does that encompass?
Benning-Reid: Good question. It’s a few things. Property rentals are huge for us: people rent a cottage or stay at a local resort for days or weeks. And then they eat and shop in town. Boating is big for us, too. We have marinas here that sell and service boats, but we’re also one of the locks on the Trent-Severn Waterway, so we get boat traffic going through, too. So that’s a big part of our tourism sector. But there’s also day trips. This is so important for us in particular. Bobcaygeon is only 90 minutes from the GTA — maybe two hours, tops. You really can come here for the day.
Gurney: I know tons of people in Toronto who come up for a day of fishing or golf and drive back that night.
Benning-Reid: Right. Or just shopping. You drive up in the morning, you go shopping, you have a meal and a beer and a glass of wine, you shop a bit more, and you get ice cream from Kawartha Dairy on the way back to Toronto. It’s a great day trip, and it’s an easy one from Toronto, too. So our shops and restaurants are a big part of our tourism industries, too. The restaurants are open, and they are busy. They’re full. But they have a long way to go to make up for the lost time, because they opened last. It’s going to be a real challenge for them.
But there is something interesting. Normally, we see a lot of our residents leave for the winter. We have a ton of snowbirds. Like you said, Bobcaygeon is quiet in the winter. That’s not just because the tourists stop coming. It’s because a lot of locals leave for warmer climates to the south. But this year? They’re not going to do that. I’m talking to all kinds of people who have cancelled their plans to go south. So for our restaurants, that could be good news. They’ll be busier all year long, and that’s not normal. It might help them make up for lost time and business.
Gurney: That’s fascinating. But it’s a good point. I’ve even read that snowbirds could have a challenge getting health insurance if they did want to travel south. Let me ask you a question about visitors, though. People who are renting a cottage or driving up for the day. Bobcaygeon had a rough winter. It was ground zero for one of the first major Ontario outbreaks. Do people feel safe coming up?
Benning-Reid: I think it's the same in every place, probably all across the country. There is still that underlying fear of the virus and spread and opening things up. And people are worried about the second wave. A lot of people are very afraid and don’t want to go out at all. Some people are fearless, almost reckless, and don’t take it seriously. And a lot of people are in the middle, just trying to get by as best they can. We're all working really hard to let people know that everyone's doing what they can to keep the businesses safe. We need the cottagers, we need our tourists, and we need our residents to support our local businesses for everybody to thrive.
Shop-local campaigns have been huge. One silver lining of this terrible time is that we’ve really communicated and co-operated with our partners. When the pandemic started, we began really communicating with our peers in Fenelon Falls, in Coboconk, in Lindsay, and all around the lakes. We worked with our other local partners, like universities and different levels of government. We’ve been in touch with the Business Development Bank of Canada. We’re still in touch with everyone now — maybe every two weeks. It’s been helpful.
Gurney: You’d mentioned snowbirds before. Do you have any sign of people doing the opposite? City people writing off Toronto for a few months and living in the cottages they’d normally spend their weekends in?
Benning-Reid: I don’t know we have any proof of that, but I think it’s happening. It would not surprise me. I mentioned before that you can’t find a rental. I think people are living in their cottages this summer instead of renting them out. Also, real estate is really hot this summer, for both vacant land and residences, because there's a lot of people thinking, I don’t want to be in the city anymore, and they’re looking at different opportunities. It’s the same thing with renovations. I mentioned lumber before. A lot of people who spent months in their houses in Toronto are now fixing them up, or fixing up their cottages so they can spend more time here.
Gurney: This is mainly good news so far. But let me ask this question. I’m not asking for a prediction. I think 2020 has shown us that predictions are bad. But let’s talk about planning. Ontario, right now, looks great. The curve is crushed. But we’re seeing second waves all over the world. Europe seems to be tipping over now. Let’s assume that it’s only a matter of time before Ontario gets hit again. What are you planning?
Benning-Reid: We’re talking about that, but we just started. We needed months to get on our feet again, so it’s only now that we can look forward. And we’re worried. A second wave and more lockdowns could finish off businesses that found a way to survive so far. If it happens, and we have to shut down again, we’ll be better prepared. We’ve done it once. We learned from it. A lot of our businesses didn’t have a lot of e-commerce options before. Now almost everyone does. We can move a lot of these businesses online. We know how to do that now. That will help. But other than that? We just have to wait.
One challenge is interesting, though. Rural internet is a problem. We need better internet. If we’re going to move these businesses online, we need stable, reliable, fast internet in rural communities. It’s a major challenge. The government knows that, but we don’t have the resources or the people in place to fix that. So that’s something we learned. We need better internet. It’s important.
Gurney: People who spend all their time in the cities don’t realize how big a deal this is. I was just talking to a friend the other day. We’re both counting on Elon Musk to get his StarLink satellites operating. As soon as possible, please, Elon. Any final thoughts, Denise?
Benning-Reid: That about covers it. What happened at the Pinecrest Nursing Home was a tragedy. It’s terrible that this happened in our community. But I hope we’re ready for a second wave. We talk about it every day. My whole job is talking COVID-19 now. We have communication, we do webinars, we’re in touch. I hope we’re ready. I think we are.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.