Should Muskoka follow Haldimand-Norfolk and Ban cottagers from visiting during Covid-19 orders?

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Agatha Farmer

Haldimand-Norfolk's seasonal residents were sent the following order in a letter from the county's public medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai on Friday May 1;

“You are not permitted to occupy your secondary residence within the Health Unit, which includes a rented cottage, vacation home, beach house, chalet, and/or condominium. You are not permitted to allow anyone else to occupy your Secondary Residence within the Health Unit.”

Violators could be fined $5,000 per day.

Like or not this health unit has set a precedent for the upcoming dilemma of what to do about cottage country's opening summer long weekend just two short weeks away as the Covid-19 pandemic emergency response continues.

As predicted the Haldimand-Norfolk order did not appeal to everyone, including the mayor of Norfolk County Kristal Chopp who said in an interview with National Post that “personal property rights are fundamentally what inspired me to run in politics, so am I entirely comfortable with the decision of our medical officer of health? I’m not."

Information of the Norfolk County's public heath order has made it to Muskoka Facebook groups. The topic of seasonal residents travelling to their cottages during the height of a pandemic possibly overwhelming local supplies and resources has been a hot issue in the region as well as a highly divisive one between locals and cottagers.

Norfolk County seasonal residents are reported to be upset over the public health order which prevents them from travelling to their secondary residence along Lake Erie. Much like Muskoka seasonal residents who have been asked by Premier Doug Ford on March 27 not to travel to cottage country, Norfolk cottagers say that they will not use Norfolk County hospitals if they require medical assistance and would instead travel to their primiary residence hospital. While that is a noble thought this proved not to be the case for Muskoka's first Covid-19 death who was a Muskoka Lakes seasonal resident and died in a Muskoka hospital.

Hence the ongoing discussion over cottage owners being able to travel during the state of a pandemic and amid emergency orders between their Ontario residences as Covid-19 moves through the community acquired stage. Muskoka's public medical officer Dr. Charles Gardner has recommended that for the time being seasonal residents suspend travel up north and remain at their primary address. This recommendation has not been taken seriously as some seasonal residents continue to visit Muskoka weekend after weekend as is evident by the increase in traffic.

On the Facebook group Huntsville Voice, local columnist Ruby Truax threw the topic out for discussion when she shared the news of the Haldimand Norfolk order and said that "this is a taste of what we will experience if the province accepts OUR medical officer of health's recommendation to ban people from their second residences here in Muskoka. It's not going to be pretty."

The following mixed feedback was given on the social media post.

Greg Reuvekamp: "checks calendar" hmmm ... Next Fri 13th weekend is in November ... That's lucky. Port Dover would be in some trouble if it came any sooner."

Kelly Beach: "I don't think we should be banning seasonal residents as long as they aren't bringing guests. They should have to follow the same rules, i.e. no one there that doesn't live in your household, social distancing, as they would at home. They should also bring enough supplies with them to self-isolate for 2 weeks after they arrive. Note - I said seasonal residents - those who would normally come up for the entire summer, not people who travel back and forth on weekends only, not campers, not AirBnB or renters etc."

Sandy Pedersen Inkster: "Ruby, I’m curious how they will enforce it Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit catchment well as in Muskoka, if it goes through.

There is so much controversy right now about which approach is best, a dividing up of support. Certainly, initially,when the recommendation came forth to stay at home most people, stayed at home, collectively, unified, (allowing the essential service individuals to do what was required), and were grateful for that recommendation. Now, there appears to be scoffing, sense of entitlement arising and individuals doing whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want."

Lynn Buckley: "They are trying to stop the spread of covid19. When seasonal residents, decide to go to their cottage. They could be unknowingly, be bringing the virus with them. Even if they have no symptoms. Most rural areas are not equipped to deal with an influx of people medically. Most locoms, who go to cottage country areas are all busy in major hospitals. If people with second residences can’t understand these simple requests to ensure everyone’s safety, shame on them. And we could ultimately be longer returning to a different type of normal life."

Ryan David: "Get ready for some serious funding shortages as these cottagers stop paying their property taxes. Good luck with that."

Today during his press conference Premier Doug Ford said that he will be talking to Muskoka mayors regarding cottagers, who with the exception of one have been asking seasonal residents to remain at home.

"There's only so long I can hold the big gates back from these people, they're gonna want to go to their vacation property," said Ford.

Sure they do and so in that case a plan should be designed for Muskoka which would accommodate appropriate resources so that both Covid-19, other medical procedures and emergencies can be managed during the summer months. But not until such a plan is clear and implemented. One only needs to look to Huntsville which has a walk-in clinic that mostly caters to seasonal residents as it is only open July and August. It is a sure bet that most local all year Huntsville residents would appreciate a walk in clinic all year around in the largest populated municipality in Muskoka and yet they only do during the influx of seasonal cottagers. More medical emergencies occur when the region's population triples during the summer, now add on Covid-19 and it becomes clear why the order to stay at your primary residence.

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