John Simpson says there are three telltale signs that summer cottagers have arrived in the Muskoka region: jammed grocery stores, more lights shining along the lakeshores at night, and a busier hospital emergency room. The director and chief of emergency medicine at Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare Centre says that he’s noticing all three — and it’s only April.
While the region typically swells from 60,000 people to double or triple that in the summer, according to Simpson, the fears around COVID-19 in Toronto have prompted many city-dwellers to self-isolate at the cottage in early spring. That spurred Premier Doug Ford to tell cottagers to stay home. “It’s causing too much strain to local health-care facilities and stores,” he said at a March 27 press conference. At a March 29 press conference in Ottawa, Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public-health officer, said, "Urban dwellers should avoid heading to rural properties, as these places have less capacity to manage COVID-19.”
The early surge in out-of-town arrivals has also raised concerns locally about an already-strained health-care system’s ability to keep up as a global pandemic grips the province. “On a normal year, our population swells significantly in July, August, September — even up toward Thanksgiving. And that's a predictable swell that happens every year,” says Simpson, who suggests that, even in an average year, the hospital’s funding can be insufficient during the seasonal influx. “We really struggled with that,” he says. “That funding model doesn't fit our needs when the need is high and barely fits or covers our needs when the needs are low.”
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Simpson says that, because of social distancing, media outreach, and screening and restrictions at the hospital, the overall emergency-room numbers were down about 15 per cent from a normal March. “With that, there are a higher proportion of people that are coming who are not permanent residents,” he adds.
According to the Simcoe Muskoka Health Unit, which covers Barrie and the surrounding area, as of April 1, there were 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 12 recovered, 11 hospitalizations, and four deaths. Given that the pandemic is expected to bring significant challenges for the health-care system, Simpson is cautioning families to carefully consider any decision to leave the city for the countryside. “I do think that people should make responsible decisions and, in doing, so should keep in mind that smaller communities have smaller hospitals and fewer beds, fewer staff, fewer docs,” says Simpson. “Yet I absolutely respect that it's a really hard decision to decide where to physically distance for a family.”
Bracebridge mayor Graydon Smith stirred up controversy after he made comments in an interview that some interpreted as suggesting that seasonal residents weren’t welcome. “I don't want to be seen as continuing to fuel a fire on what is a polarizing topic in the community,” Smith clarifies. “For me, it was a capacity issue, and it wasn't an issue of where you are from. You know, you might want to consider the size of the health-care [system] and small communities.”
Following Ford’s announcement about staying away from cottage country, an anonymous group of cottagers donated $135,000 to the South Muskoka Hospital Foundation.
Cottagers haven’t been a serious problem, says Gravenhurst mayor Paul Kelly, but if they were to become one, municipalities wouldn’t have many options. “There's no simple answer to any of that,” he says. “Everyone pays taxes. They own their properties. They have a right to come to the property.”
While public-health units and higher levels of government can make suggestions and tighten travel restrictions, he adds, at a municipal level, the focus can’t be on driving divisions between year-round and seasonal residents. Cottagers and tourists, he says, contribute significantly to the region’s economy — and, come summer, their absence will be felt. According to Venture Muskoka, visitors spend about $375 million in the district each year. “One of the things that was talked about for businesses in our community is they're concerned about tourism and how it's going to be affected by the time this is all over,” he says. “It’s going to be a long time before tourism comes back.”
Business owners such as Seann Jamieson, of Jamieson’s General Store in Port Sydney, have seen increased traffic in recent weeks for essentials. But Jamieson’s has experienced an overall dip in revenues due to a lack of interest in the store’s baked goods and ice cream. He is worried about the summer and the prospect of laying off staff. “Our summer season, our holidays in the fall, when all the trees are changing and everyone's coming over for pictures, and stuff like that, then on the March break, when people are coming up to ski — that makes our business. So, right now, this is very detrimental to us.”
Kelly wants to reminds anyone considering a trip to the cottage that they may have more access to important resources, such as grocery stores, in the city than in a smaller town. “And, certainly,” he says, “health-care resources are limited, as well.” But he’s also urging Gravenhurst residents to see beyond any divide between seasonal and year-round residents: “From our perspective, we aren’t drawing lines.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.