Premier and mayor offer different visions on return of cottagers

By Kirk Winter

On March 27, Kawartha Lakes residents heard two very different messages regarding seasonal residents heading to their cottages and rural properties during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early on Friday afternoon Premier Doug Ford stated categorically, “that residents in urban areas should avoid heading to their cottages and rural properties across the province during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Ford fleshed out his statement and shared, “I’ve been getting a tremendous amount of calls from cottage country mayors, if I can call them that, and residents too.”

The premier added that, “rural areas may have more difficulty replenishing essential items if there is an added demand. Also the hospitals, they don’t have the capacity we do in urban settings and as they all say right now, “We are going to welcome you with open arms when we get through this” but right now (cottagers moving to their rural resort properties) it’s putting a lot of strain on systems out there.”

The Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit, responsible for a large part of cottage country was supportive of the premier’s statement sharing, “The region is experiencing community health transmission of COVID-19. Due to this, public health is unable to monitor how the virus is spreading from person to person and this makes it more difficult to slow the spread.”

There are 33 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Simcoe-Muskoka, including five hospitalizations and three deaths.

Public health officials, emergency room doctors and mayors in Tobermory, Southampton, Huntsville, Bracebridge and Haliburton have also added their voices to that of the premier’s, suggesting that seasonal residents would be better off weathering the COVID-19 virus at their winter homes, which are predominantly located in large well-serviced urban centres.

Kawartha Lakes Mayor Andy Letham was interviewed on March 27 (the same day the premier spoke) by Global New at 5:30 p.m. and took a much different stand than the premier and many of his fellow cottage country mayors.

The reporter shared that Letham believed seasonal residents were entitled to go to their properties and were more than welcome to self-isolate in Kawartha Lakes.

In a portion of the interview Letham was shown utilizing Skype to speak with Global, and the mayor continued in the same vein as the reporter had suggested by sharing, “These are the same residents who pay into our healthcare all year round and whether they utilize it here or somewhere else it doesn’t matter. I am not really buying into the argument that seasonal residents will be taking services away from local residents. We are all in this together and we will beat it together.”

Letham added in a conference call with local reporters on March 30 that, “My comments are my comments. In my opinion they (seasonal residents) should be able to come here if they want. Seasonal residents are welcome to isolate and be safe.”

Letham shared a story with the reporters of receiving a phone call from a health care worker from the GTA who wanted his family to self isolate at their summer property where they would stand less chance of being exposed to what he was bringing home from work.

Letham fully supported that situation. Letham doesn’t want people coming to Kawartha Lakes “to party” and believes that, “seasonal residents are residents during the good times and the bad, not just during the good times.”

The Kawartha Lakes mayor said his opinions are his, only, and do not reflect those of the other eight members of council.

Ward 6 Councillor Ron Ashmore posted on Facebook on March 27 that he was fully supportive of the mayor’s statements, and believed it was the correct stand to take.

According to 2016 statistics, Kawartha Lakes has a winter population of 75,423 and a summer population of 106,423. According to statistics available on the municipal website, the city hosts about 31,000 seasonal residents every summer.

Anecdotally, these residents have started to arrive back at their recreational properties a full eight weeks earlier than they normally would. One Sturgeon Lake blogger reported on March 30 that at dusk, “the lake was lit up like Canada Day weekend.”

A heartfelt Facebook posting shared by many on March 26 featured a graphic of the Welcome to Bobcaygeon sign with a closed sign superimposed over it. The author of the post begged seasonal residents to stay at home until the pandemic had lifted. His rationale very much mimicked what Ford would share the next day.

Sources who asked not to be named shared with The Advocate that conflicts between full-time and early returning seasonal residents have been witnessed in a number of cottage country communities over the last 14-21 days.

The causes of the conflicts seem to be rooted in the disappointment of seasonal residents regarding how little is open, how little is available to buy, how few trades people are available to help them open early and do odds jobs and how cool the reception has been from communities who normally welcome them with open arms beginning on the May 24 long weekend.

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