‘There'll be some scars’: A cottage-country mayor talks tourism and COVID-19

TVO.org speaks with City of Kawartha Lakes mayor Andy Letham about cottagers, public safety — and concerns about “plague-infested zombies” from the GTA
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 28, 2020
The City of Kawartha Lakes was created by the Mike Harris government when it amalgamated all the various communities inside the now-defunct Victoria County. (iStock/danielwilliams)

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In a series of articles last month, TVO.org spoke with business owners and industry associations about the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cottage country and northern Ontario. How have things gone since? TVO.org spoke with Andy Letham, mayor of the City of Kawartha Lakes, a cottage-country region to the northeast of Toronto, to find out.

Author’s note: Before we begin, a word on political geography. Many of you have probably heard of some well-known towns and cities in cottage country: Bobcaygeon, Lindsay, Fenelon Falls, Omemee, Kirkfield. What you might not realize is that those communities, and many more, are all part of a municipality known as the City of Kawartha Lakes, which was created by the Mike Harris government when it amalgamated all the various communities inside the now-defunct Victoria County. The city is responsible for the provision of many municipal-level services. The city’s seat is in Lindsay, its largest community. According to official figures, the full-time population is 75,000, but 31,000 more live there during the summer season.

Matt Gurney: As always, we start at the beginning. So can you tell me what the situation is currently in the Kawartha Lakes?

Andy Letham: It was a struggle at the beginning. The Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon was hit early and was one of the worst outbreaks in the province. So we didn’t get off to a very good start. It was a huge tragedy for Bobcaygeon and the rest of our city. Since then, we’ve been very stable with our numbers of COVID-19 cases. The struggle at the beginning was terrible, but, after that, we’ve had very limited community spread — a few outbreaks, but they were contained at one person or a few people, maximum.

From an emergency-services perspective, we have an emergency-operations-centre meeting every week, and it's been very quiet. We have had very good compliance in our community with emergency regulations and public-health advice. There have been a few calls to the police for social gatherings or a party. The police will show up to those and issue warnings. So far, no tickets. Everybody's been good. And our local emergency-service-call volumes are down — the police, the fire department. Calls are down. People aren't travelling like they used to. Less driving has probably led to fewer accidents. People are calling paramedics when they know it's a true emergency and not for some of the less-urgent calls we would have had in the past. So the paramedic call volumes are down, too.

So, for the last six or seven weeks, it's been very steady, very calm. We've noticed just this week or so, starting around the long weekend, that there’s an increase in some of those call volumes just because there are more people coming up to their seasonal properties. There are more people in the community. So some of those call volumes are obviously going to go up. But that’s just in the last week or two.

Gurney: Even though you’re saying that things are getting busier, is it fair to say they’re quieter than they’d usually be at this time of year?

Letham: Absolutely. Call volumes are coming up, but they’re nowhere near what they were in previous years at this time. So, with the long weekend and improving weather, call volumes are going up. But I want to be clear — they're not COVID-related calls. They're just people in the community, whether it's, you know, an incident or a car accident. So call volumes are up, but no sign of an increase in the pandemic in the city. We expected the increase in calls, and we are ready for it.

Gurney: I guess it was about a month ago, maybe a bit more than that, that we first spoke briefly. I had seen your name in news coverage because, unlike a lot of other elected leaders or public-health officials in rural areas, particularly in cottage country, you were saying that people who owned secondary residences in the city could come up. A lot of these are cottages for people from Toronto, but people also forget that that includes a lot of snowbirds who live in Canada part-time, spending the rest of the year south of the border, and came back when the emergency hit. What led you to go out so early on — this was when the tragedy at Pinecrest was still in the news — and take that position?

Letham: That's a great question. And, you’re right, there had been some mayors in the Muskoka region saying that they were concerned about seasonal cottagers coming up. And I was like, why would you be concerned about people who are part of your community? And then the premier got on board and said, yes, we’re asking people not to go to their seasonal residences. And I'm sitting here, and I'm having some discussions. And I’m wondering, is the premier ordering people not to go? But they weren’t. They were recommending no non-essential travel. They were recommending staying at home. But they didn’t mandate that.

So our message was that we agreed people should avoid unnecessary travel. You should stay home as much as possible. But I did not agree we should say you're not welcome to come to the property that you own, that you pay taxes on all year. You're part of this community as much as everybody else. So, if you feel the need to come up to your seasonal property, then we support that, but please be responsible. Follow the protocols, and understand that, because of the emergency, there are not a lot of services available.

But these people are the same as the rest of us that are up here. They’re as big a part of this community as everybody else who lives here all year long. And we respected that, and we tried to put out that message.

Gurney: The message was heard far and wide. It made the news.

Letham: I know it did. I heard from residents who didn't agree. From a health perspective, they were saying people from the GTA were plague-infested zombies, and you're inviting them to come up here? You're gonna kill us!

Gurney: In fairness, they were saying that even before the pandemic.

Letham: [laughs] Yes. Hah, yeah. But, I mean, I got those kind of comments. But, at the same time, I also had a lot of calls — if not more calls — from other residents who totally agreed with our position. And these were full-time residents calling to tell me they agreed. And I had a lot of calls from seasonal residents who very much appreciated that balanced approach. They said to me, “Andy, we know what our communities are all about, what they’re like, and we're not going to come up and put our communities in peril. We're not stupid, and if we come up, we will use common sense.”

There are some municipalities that probably weren't in as good a position as we were to handle this — if they had a little corner store that supplied groceries to the seasonal population, which was 80 per cent of the community, that could be a bit of a strain. But don't lump us all into the same category. As mayors, we have the ability, under the emergency order, to put local orders in place. If I wanted to put an order in place banning seasonal residents coming to their second property, I could do that. We could do that locally. So a lot of mayors were kind of saying, “No, don't come to your cottage,” but they wanted the province to make it official for them. They didn’t want the blame.

But we're not all in the same boat. We have lots of big grocery stores up here. And they're calling me to say, “We want people to come up. We don't want them to bring their groceries — we want them to shop when they're here!” They have proper protocols in place at their grocery stores, and anybody can shop here safely. It was an interesting discussion, but, to be honest, it's kind of past now. The seasonal residents are here — they're here, and they're doing their thing, and most of them are doing it responsibly. We haven’t seen a surge in the pandemic at all — people are now here, but there’s been no surge in our hospitals. So there was some fear-mongering early, but it hasn’t turned into anything real.

Gurney: Can we drill down into that for a second? You said that, when you first spoke up a month or so ago, you were hearing from all sides. Now that people have been coming up for a few weeks, what are you hearing?

Letham: Not much at all. It fizzled out. It’s honestly been a non-issue. The weather wasn't so great for a lot of May, so that kept people away. I’ve had a few calls from people; they just say, “You know, on the lake, there were lights all along the shore, so even though the province is asking people not to come to their cottages, they're obviously coming.” But I didn't get any complaints from people about specific neighbours. They were just generally aware that people were coming. But over the last few weeks, yeah, it’s fizzled. They’re here, they're visiting some of our shops, they're having an ice cream, and they're being just as respectful as we knew they would be — as every other resident who's here.

So, unfortunately, we've had a few incidents where, you know, people have come up for an ice cream, and maybe they’d be confronted by a full-time resident saying, “Hey, where are you from?” So we had some disappointed people who’d send me emails. But those residents don’t speak for the municipality, and I think incidents like that are really unfortunate.

If you choose to get in your vehicle and come for a visit and have an ice cream, and you do that responsibly like everybody else, you're more than welcome to come to our community and do that. And we're going to get to a point where we're going to start inviting them up here, because that's a big part of who we are in the summertime. We need to find that balance. Hopefully soon, we’ll be opening up our bars and restaurants and amenities. The locks [on the Trent Severn Waterway] are going to open on June 1 — that was just announced.

I think you're going to slowly see a transition from “if you must come, fine, but be careful” to “you're welcome to come.” In the near future, we’ll be saying, “Please, please come to the Kawartha Lakes. You won’t be taking your vacation in Europe this year, so come see us and all we have to offer. Do it responsibly, but please come.” I think that’s going to be in the next few weeks.

Gurney: I think there was a thought that this controversy was a city versus rural issue. But the more I read local news and local social media and local online message boards, the more I realized it wasn’t quite that. It really seemed more bitter among two groups of full-time residents: those whose businesses and jobs depend on seasonal visitors and those who don’t need that business.

Letham: Yes, yes. That's a great point. And there’s something else at play, too. We've got some of the old-school folks whose families have been here for, you know, hundreds of years. Their attitude is, these are our communities, and we don't need anybody else. But there has been a huge influx of people moving here from the GTA, and that’s been going on for many years now. So I think they have a little different perspective and probably more of an open mind. But your point is, I think, bang on. I mean, we have people up here who get annoyed in the summertime when all the seasonal residents and tourists are up, because of the traffic and the stores are busier. To them, it's annoying. They don't depend on that for a living. It's just an inconvenience. They endure May to September as part of living in what they call paradise.

On the other side of it, you've got others — some of our businesses just shut down for the whole winter, and they go down south, and they come back, and they're totally dependent on that busy period. So, yeah, we’ve got the group over here that tolerates the seasonal residents and tourists in the summertime, and you've got the others that are actually 100 per cent dependent on them to make a living. So of course that's going to be a very different discussion.

So the ones who are saying they don’t want anyone here in the pandemic are probably the ones who wouldn’t want them here at all. And then you’ve got the others. I get calls every day asking, “When are we going to be allowed to start?” Our hotels, our restaurants. They’re empty except for construction crews who work here during the week. But the weekends come, and the hotels are empty. They want to know when we can advertise that we’re open for business. We want to do that together as a municipality; that'll be part of our strategy. We will soon start promoting that people can come up and visit, maybe rent a cottage and spend a few days at the lake, or come up and spend a weekend at a bed and breakfast. But we can’t do that yet, and we don’t want to rush before it’s safe.

Gurney: You know, I’d never want to ask a question that would get an elected official in trouble —

Letham: [laughs] Uh-oh.

Gurney: [laughs] Yeah, sorry. But I want to talk about this division. Earlier, we talked about how, once people started showing up, the concerns mostly fizzled. But I’m wondering if you’re worried that there’s been some lasting damage from all of this. Because some of the arguments I saw, whether between full-time residents with different views, or between city people and local people, were really bitter. Really insulting, and a lot of mutual disrespect was shown. Does that worry you? Is this something you think about?

Letham: It absolutely is. Because I think you’re completely correct. It's divided our community to a certain extent, and I think it's divided communities right across the province — some more so than others. Some have taken some drastic actions, like shutting off water or putting health-unit orders in place. We haven’t done that, but I do worry. I see the comments going both ways, and I've heard reports of seasonal residents coming up here weeks ago, not so much lately, but, you know, mocking people in a grocery store for taking the precautions. Making fun of somebody for wearing a mask. In a small community, word gets around pretty, pretty quickly about that disrespect. On the other side of it, we've had a lot of local residents disrespecting the seasonal residents coming up. I didn't follow social media too much, but it is brought to my attention.

I'm totally aware of the divide here. I've heard from people who have said to me, “I just want you to know that, despite your words of reassurance, we will still be coming to our cottage, but we will never be shopping locally in the community again, because of the disrespect that people have shown us.” I've had those comments from seasonal residents. But a lot of people have been understanding. They understand why people are afraid, and they’re respectful of that. It’s all human nature. We’ve got people who think the pandemic is a hoax and others who think we should lock everything down for five years, just to be on the safe side. Some people are terrified that somebody is going to come up from the GTA to their cottage and thousands of us are going to be infected.

But there are others that are saying, “They're our friends. They're part of our community. They're my neighbours. I can't wait for them to come back. I miss them. We're not going to be able to hug. We're not going to be able to have our get-together, barbecue like we always do, but we can't wait for them to come back.”

Some are certainly handling it better than others on both sides. When we're past this, we're going to have to work on bringing our community back together like it was before, but I'm sure there'll be some divide that stays. There'll be some scars, not just here, but right across the province. And right across the country, really. My brother lives in British Columbia, and he’s told me about the anger about visitors from Alberta. It’s pretty crazy what’s happening out there. But here, for better or worse, people have shown their true colours, and we’ll have some sorting out to do.

Gurney: That’s a long-term mission, I’d imagine. What are you looking at as your priorities and the city's priorities for the next week or two? What's on your agenda?

Letham: The main concern is keeping our positive cases low, avoiding outbreaks, and watching our emergency services to keep them stable. We know we need to reopen the economy. We won’t be able to just wait the pandemic out. But we knew we had to get a handle on the infections, and, so far, I think we’re doing that. We're handling the pandemic, from a local perspective, the best we can.

People are being responsible, and our services are stable. So, in the next few weeks, I think we will shift from a pandemic response to an economic response. We've just launched a couple of task forces this week at council to start reaching out to our businesses and our community and our non-profits. We’re going to start putting some working groups together and figure out what we need to do now, what's the first thing we need to do.

Take our bars and restaurants. How can we help those? Is it expanding patio space; is it waiving fees? What are some of the simple things that we can do to just make life and our economic recovery as easy as possible? We want to get to the point locally where, once the province starts releasing some of these orders, the amenities and the restaurants and the bars and businesses are now back on track. When you go out and are sitting on a patio on a nice summer day — once we can do that, we’ll know we can start promoting that we’ve made the transition. “Open for Business Responsibly” is probably going to be our new tagline. I don't know if it'll ever be back to normal and what it was last year, but we'll get through this.

I'm concerned for some of our businesses, though. They're in tough shape. But, if this goes on much longer — and I'm not suggesting the province should open up before it’s safe and we’re ready — but we're gonna have some businesses that we're going to lose. There's no doubt about it. People who have worked their whole life to get a business up: it’s their livelihood, it’s taken years, and, all of a sudden, something totally beyond their control happens, and that's just gone. It’s one thing to take a loan out to get you through the tough spots, but loans have to be paid back. And a lot of these businesses are running paycheque to paycheque just like everybody else.

Gurney: Any concluding thoughts?

Letham: For one thing, the premier is getting a lot of criticism this week, and I don’t agree with all the decisions he’s made, but I think he’s had to make some tough calls, and I think most of them have been good. He’s obviously the kind of guy who’s focused on the economy, and I get that. But he’s listening to the experts, and I respect that. It’s exactly what we needed in this province — and would anyone have believed we’d be saying that about the premier a year ago? So he’s done what the province needed him to do.

But, locally, I just want to end on this: I'm totally convinced we're going to get through this, because our residents have made the sacrifices we needed to make. Our businesses have made the sacrifices we need to make. I'm impressed. I'm impressed with the way our emergency services have stepped up. Sometimes the police and the fire get all the glory as the front-line guys, and paramedics and our hospital workers. But we have people working all kinds of essential jobs in this city, and some of them are making $16 an hour. Especially in our long-term-care homes. They're geared up, and they're just taking every shift they can because they know they're needed.

People have really stepped up to the challenge. We've got paramedics teaming with our hospital more than ever; we've got our hospital sending supplies to private long-term-care homes when they get a little bit low. They're sending nurses in when they've got questions or something they're not sure about.

We’ve had this huge progression in this community to where we are today, and if this ever happens again — I hope it doesn’t! — we’ve learned a lot. We’ve got great people who’ve done a great job. I'll leave it on that. I think we're going to get through this because of the people that are going to help us get through this.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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