“Stop being selfish”: Should Torontonians head to cottage country during the pandemic? We asked the mayor of Muskoka Lakes

“Stop being selfish”: Should Torontonians head to cottage country during the pandemic? We asked the mayor of Muskoka Lakes

The Easter long weekend typically kickstarts cottage season. It’s when Torontonians with properties in Muskoka head north to enjoy the early stages of spring and prep their summer retreats. This year, Covid-19 presents an interesting dilemma. Now, more than ever, claustrophobic locals want to ditch the city to self-isolate lakeside, but the federal government wants everyone—except essential workers—to be on lockdown. We chatted with Phil Harding, the mayor of Muskoka Lakes, about whether city slickers should load up their station wagons or stay put.

Let’s start with the question so many cottage owners in Toronto are asking themselves: “I’d much rather self-isolate at the cottage. Is it okay to head up?”

I’m going to have to reiterate what Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has said along with the premier of Ontario, which is to stay in your current residence. If you’re in the GTA, stay in the GTA. The more people get in their cars and stop for gas and groceries, the more they risk spreading this virus. This has been a learning curve for everyone. For a while, I was telling people they are welcome to come to Muskoka, but that was before we had the latest medical evidence and clear instructions from our public health professionals.

A lot of rural communities have reported that people coming from the city are draining essential resources. Has that been an issue in Muskoka? 

A few weeks ago it was a big issue—everyone went out and overshopped. As a result, we were depleted, much liked other grocery stores across the country. People need to understand that, right now, it’s not acceptable to buy three weeks’ worth of groceries, regardless of where you are. At this point, in Muskoka, we don’t have a ton of extra residents, so we’re managing, but in the regular summer season, our population is 85 per cent cottagers. Our grocery stores are not going to be able to accommodate that many people right now. The other area that’s strained is our local health care network. We’ve watched hospitals all over the world become totally stretched, and that’s particularly worrisome for smaller rural communities. I believe right now we’ve got two people in the area with Covid-19 who are on ventilators and being treated. One of them is the 80-something-year-old father of my good friend.

I’m sorry to hear that. How concerned are you that seasonal residents could take up valuable hospital beds?

It’s not a matter of taking. We’re all part of the Muskoka community, and normally I don’t like to make a distinction between seasonal and permanent residents. I’m also very aware of everything our seasonal residents have done to support health care. They bought a number of additional ventilators and beds, which is phenomenal and so appreciated. But the reality is that we have two hospitals here. In terms of facilities, staffing requirements and overall resources, we’re limited at best. We’ll be focusing on treating Covid-19 patients, which means we are just not equipped to service a traditional number of summer residents.

People are going to say, “Okay, but what if I bring my own groceries and promise to drive home if I start to get symptoms?”

I would go back to the instructions from our health professionals and say that people need to stop being selfish, stop rationalizing why your situation is different, why you are an exception to the rule. There are plenty of reasons why people require emergency services that you can’t anticipate. Just by opening up cottages, by putting different trade workers in the same spaces, by turning on electricity, we are increasing the risk of accidents and fires. If you require emergency assistance, that means we’re having to force our front-line health care workers and firefighters, many of whom are volunteers, into social contact. The front-line workers have the highest rate of infection right now, and they have no choice but to be in harm’s way. So to the extent that it’s possible, we need to protect them.

How do you do that?

One of the messages I’m really trying to get out there is that cottage owners should stop putting pressure on contractors and maintenance workers for anything that’s not essential. This week, the government issued new rules around essential services. Marinas are no longer able to put boats in the water for anyone who’s not a year-round resident. And the rules around construction workers have tightened, so that only people with open permits are allowed to continue with their renovations. I’m hearing from workers who say they’re getting pressure from their bosses, and those bosses are getting pressure from their clients. This needs to stop. Stop asking for things that aren’t essential, whether the government has deemed it essential or not. If our boating season doesn’t start for 60 days, the sky is not going to fall.

I think some cottagers, who are cooped up at home and spend nine months of the year anticipating cottage season, feel like maybe it is.

Look, I get it. There’s nothing I want more than to get past this and welcome everyone back. But at this point, people need to put things into perspective. If keeping your boat out of the water for another few weeks, or a month or even two months, could save someone’s life, would you do that? I think everyone would answer yes. People need to think about this in terms of “How am I going to protect my family, protect my neighbour?” As opposed to “I want my cottage, I’m entitled to be there, I pay a lot of taxes.”

Some cottage owners will argue that they pay the same taxes as year-round residents.

This is a public health emergency. I remember when I was a kid, there was a school strike in the GTA, but it’s not like my parents shipped me up to school in Muskoka, even though they paid taxes here. That’s not how it works.

And yet there are people coming up with ways to get around the rules. Presumably, you hear stories.

Oh, absolutely. I just heard about someone saying they were going to have their address changed on their driver’s licence so that the marina worker would have to put their boat in the water. There’s always going to be people trying to get around the rules.

One of your fellow mayors in nearby Huron-Kinloss shut off the water in seasonal cottages to discourage people from coming up. Is that something you might consider?

No. But I understand the frustration. I heard from a resident the other day who was upset because his contractor had refused to get on FaceTime to show him how to turn on the water. I had to say to the guy, “Look, is getting the water on in your boathouse really essential?”

The provincial government has told cottage owners not to go to their cottages, but do you wish they’d take it one step further and outlaw it?

There’s no question, that would take the pressure off me. But I don’t want to point the finger at someone else. I’m okay sticking my neck out when it’s about the greater good. I’m also someone who thinks about things practically, and really, how do we enforce it? Are we putting army barricades on the 400 and the 401? This is not a country under military governance, and I don’t want to get there. We are educated, responsible Canadians, and those people who go to cottage country need to pause and think about their actions.

I heard that people were pulled over by the OPP and turned around.

I don’t believe there was a barricade or check point, but I have heard that people are being pulled over, and that there’s a directive to enquire where they’re headed. I believe the province is looking at ways to make sure people are being responsible, but it’s definitely a challenge. I could find 10 different routes to get me to Port Carling along back roads.

I have also heard there are still Airbnb rentals advertising “cozy Covid-19 retreats.” No wonder people are confused.

Just this week, the government banned short-term rentals, so I think we’re going to see renters getting the message. If they don’t, the fine could be up to $100,000. At the largest cottage rental agency up here, one of the staff sent an email advertising April and May properties for people who wanted to get out of the GTA. The owner of that company retracted the email saying, “We are not taking any rentals.” I’m telling people I would not take a rental for 60 days.

That seems to be the way things are going. Yesterday, the prime minister said we could expect weeks, if not months, of social distancing measures. Be honest: could cottage season 2020 be cooked?

There’s so much we don’t know at this point. The only thing I can say for sure is that the best way to ensure we can all be up here as soon as possible is to follow the rules. We’ve got to be vigilant. Leave spring aside, leave Easter aside. Maybe you’re going to miss May 24 weekend. The more everybody does what’s needed, the sooner summer 2020 can get started.