The Coronavirus doesn’t move-people do. We are reminded daily that this virus knows no borders, hitching a ride on any and all willing hosts. This is why, last week, Mayor Steve Ferguson requested all accommodation operators cancel their bookings until the May long weekend.
With over 1,300 short term accommodations (STAs) in the County, the area is regularly frequented by a considerable amount of travellers looking to partake in an arguably slower pace of life. But, given the pandemic, people from urban areas have been flocking to the country for a different reason-to self-isolate.
Around the world, this trend has resulted in a resounding backlash from locals and politicians who fear for the health of their constituents.
According to a recent New York Times article, the population of Ile de Noirmoutier, France-a bucolic island community- doubled in population to 20,000 while fearful Parisians sequestered themselves in summer homes and cottages.
In that locale, the local mayor tried to block the only bridge leading to the island, but to no avail.
In Southern Italy, it’s noted the surge in cases of COVID-19 was likely brought on by Northerners who fled before the lock down.
Closer to home, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, stated at a recent press conference in Ottawa that urban dwellers should not ride out the COVID-19 storm in the countryside.
“Urban dwellers should avoid heading to rural properties as these places have less capacity to manage COVID-19,” said Tam.
Premier Doug Ford echoed Tam’s sentiments this past weekend, when he pleaded with urban Ontarians not to escape to cottage country, thereby placing further burden on the hospitals and grocery stores in those areas.
“I’m getting a tremendous amount of calls from mayors and wardens in municipalities throughout cottage country,” he said. “… They’re asking me, ‘please, ask people not to come up to cottage country until we get through this,'” Ford said.
The Premier made mention of how 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, ‘We’re going to welcome you with open arms when we get through this,’ but right now it’s putting a lot of strain on their system out there,” Ford said.
STA bookings aside, Mayor Steve Ferguson has taken a more measured tone than some politicians, stating that any part-time or seasonal residents of the County must abide by the same guidelines asked of full time residents.
“If part-time or seasonal residents of the County are returning, they must respect the guidelines we’ve been asking full-time residents to follow-self-isolate for 14 days after returning from travel outside of Canada and to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19,” Ferguson stated.
Ferguson also stressed the need for those returning from International travel to self-isolate for 14 days and to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19.
In addition, Ferguson noted that anyone who lives with someone who has recently travelled internationally, or if they’re someone who has travelled domestically through one of the four airports still accepting international flights.
“They should also self-isolate if they are living with someone who returned from international travel or they have returned from domestic travel that took them through one of the four airports accepting international flights, as identified by the federal government — Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Vancouver International Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, or Calgary International Airport,” said Ferguson. “ If they picked up/drove home someone returning from international travel or domestic travel whose journey took them through one of the four airports, they should also self-isolate.”
With grocery store shelves dwindling in stock and the rush for certain products abundantly apparent, one concern for many in rural areas is that urban incomers will further deplete a limited stock.
“Before coming to our community, I strongly recommend seasonal residents stock up on food and other necessities so as not to put an additional burden on stores here in Prince Edward County,” added Ferguson.
Regardless, the power of municipal politicians to curtail the business activity of STA owners is limited.
In a recent statement made by the Mayor on Facebook, he emphasized the request for STA operators to cancel their upcoming bookings is just that-a request. Though many have complied, it is not within the purview of municipal government to enforce any such ask.
“Based on the need to protect the safety and well-being of residents and businesses in The County, I made a request last week of roofed accommodations to cancel reservations until the May long weekend. That request was unanimously supported by all members of council,” wrote Ferguson. “Many STA operators and traditional accommodations complied with that request, and I am grateful to receive their support, along with that of many tourism organizations, STA owners and the general public. In addition, I have been speaking with the corporate offices of STA’s, multiple senior executives and employees underscoring the necessity and urgency associated with their compliance.
Based on the rules of law and terms municipal governments must abide by in Ontario, added Ferguson, there are limitations to what they can do. One such limitation is the ability to a business or class of business. Such matters, he described, are controlled by the provincial and federal governments.
“As we have seen during the past week, those levels of government have exercised their powers to pass emergency legislation and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future (yesterday, it became prohibited for more than five people to congregate in one place). The matter of continued travel by the public throughout the province, including to Prince Edward County, is a serious impediment to controlling the spread of COVID-19, and that threat is understood by the provincial government,” stressed Ferguson.
In a second social media statement, despite the wishes of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer and Ontario’s Premier that urban dwellers not suddenly relocate to rural settings and stay at their primary residence, Ferguson originally said STA owners have the right to use their property as they see fit.
It was clear a growing divide between STA owners defecting from elsewhere to this island and year-round inhabitants concerned about the spread of COVID-19 is developing in the community.
“I’d like everyone to take a step back and consider that although tourism reservations have been cancelled or deferred until after the May long weekend, the owners of the facilities still have the right to use them themselves taking the appropriate health protocol measures. Just because an accommodation (of any sort) is occupied does not mean it involved a commercial transaction,” Ferguson said. “I am hopeful that the public will take a tolerant approach to this matter, including not jumping to conclusions.”
However his most recent statement made to the public on March 31, Mayor Steve Ferguson urged tourists, cottagers and those who own a second-home in the County not to come here to self-isolate, stating that “Prince Edward County is essentially temporarily closed”.
“I fully understand the appeal of fleeing the city and coming to the County at any time. However, I echo the call made by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Premier Doug Ford. Now is not the time for a vacation or to travel,” he stated. “Please keep in mind our resources are much more limited than those in cities and we have an older population that is much more susceptible to getting very sick if they contract COVID- 19. You might feel healthy now, but you could be bringing something with you that we wont be able to easily deal with a small rural municipality.”
Like many politicians, Ferguson pleaded with everyone to do their part in helping to stop the spread of this pernicious virus.
UPDATE: This article has been altered to reflect the most recent statements made by Mayor Steve Ferguson on March 31.