Reopening of STAs during COVID-19 pandemic met with mixed reaction

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In a departure from previous prescriptions for travellers to not inundate small towns, the Province of Ontario made an abrupt decision late last week to reopen all accommodations, including short term accommodations (STAs), lodges, cabins, cottages, homes, condominiums and traditional bed and breakfasts.

The announcement was made on June 4  by Victor Fedelli, Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade. Short term accommodations were officially allowed to reopen as of 12:01 a.m. June 5.

In this bucolic part of the province where the proliferation of STAs has divided the community, the reopening of accommodations has been met with equal parts praise and worry.

Even STA Operators are divided as to whether or not the province has acted imprudently in allowing these businesses to reopen.

STA Operator Janna Burford gladly welcomed the news of the re-opening, citing it as “a relief” for her and her young family.

The months in which her STA was closed represented a huge loss of income for Burford, who noted they would normally have been booked solid every weekend-and even have some weekday bookings.

I did a dance of joy when I heard they could reopen,” she said. “It’s a big relief because we have a little family. Luckily, my husband has another job, but this is also half of our income that we haven’t had.”

For Burford and her family who depend on such income, the upcoming months sparked worry as she said they weren’t sure whether they could open their STA doors this season at all.

I wasn’t sure if we would have any bookings this year, which was a big stress,” she said.

Like the rest of the province, Burford along with all other STA operators, heard news of the reopening less than a day before it happened.

Since then, she has received at least one inquiry per day and several bookings. This past weekend,commented Burford, her STA which provides several self contained guest suites was fully booked on Saturday.

For Burford, maintaining physical distancing and appropriate cleaning standards is perhaps easier than others, as her suites are self-contained.

“They’re super easy to clean-I don’t think anything will change for us as we already wiped everything down very well,” she said. “We have three separate suites here and each has their own entrance. When guests arrive, I actually just have notes up on the front door so people just grab their notes and let themselves into their own room.”

Happy to be able to host again, Burford noted that her STA allows for easy separation of both guests and her family.

On the other side of the spectrum is Lorie Kehoe who also relies on the supplemental income from her STA. Kehoe has made the decision not to reopen her STA this season for fear it may contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

Kehoe said she would normally be fully booked not only during June but throughout the summer. Normally, she rents rooms in her house to itinerant workers who need a place to stay in the County.

A few groups were anywhere from five nights to what ended up being almost 2 weeks and others weekends,” she explained. “Last June, I was basically booked solid and same for July and August.”

Kehoe described shock when she found out via word of mouth on Facebook that the province planned to reopen STAs “since the state of emergency was just extended on June 2 until June 30.”

Kehoe describes her job as working with vulnerable people as having made her acutely aware of the dangers posed by COVID-19. When the threat of the virus grew, Kehoe described herself as anxious and considered the summer a ‘write-off’.

I became very anxious and saw the summer as a write off for for STA rentals,” she noted.

Throughout the winter, according to Kehoe, she had rented to military personnel who were waiting for housing at CFB Trenton. However, as soon as the pandemic hit their housing and her summer plans of renting her STA evaporated.

In the meantime, she’s allowed those posted to CFB Trenton to continue renting, a situation that works out well for both parties.

Kehoe’s reasoning for shuttering the doors to her STA, despite being given ‘the green light’ by the provincial government, is twofold.

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Kehoe explained she’s apprehensive about being able to clean to the standards necessary in order to avoid spreading COVID-19 and she fears being responsible for helping the virus spread within this community.

I wouldn’t open. I can not guarantee that the house could be cleaned and sanitized to the extent I believe it needs to be between guests to guarantee nobody will get sick or bring COVID-19 here to my house/my county,” she said. “It would take an insane amount of time to clean and sanitize every single nook and cranny to guarantee this and I am not at all willing to risk it. All clean dishes, pots pans etc would need to be rewashed along with everything they could have touched, every cupboard they could have opened and breathed or coughed 

As Kehoe explains, she received an email from the municipality explaining proper cleaning protocols during the time of COVID-19-protocols she described as nothing short of onerous. And without anybody “checking in” to make sure STAs are cleaning properly, Kehoe believes these new protocols may fall by the wayside.

There can’t be any way to police this to make sure people are cleaning and sanitizing properly especially since STAs opened up so quickly,” she said.

In her day to day life working with vulnerable people Kehoe has been privy to a contingent of the population who is not even allowed to leave their own property during the pandemic. She finds fault with the province for promoting travel and tourism while much of the local population continues to self-isolate.

This just doesn’t seem right at all, in my opinion,” she commented.

After months spent social distancing, Kehoe posed the question many are asking at this time, “Why would I invite people from hot spots to come here and share our space in a pandemic?”

In a number of social media messages, County of Prince Edward Mayor Steve Ferguson stressed that province in no way communicated with this municipality or likely any other prior to arriving at a decision to reopen the tourism accommodation industry in Ontario.

“I want to make it clear that the opening of STAs was a provincial government decision announced yesterday. Our municipal government – members of council, staff and myself – had no knowledge of – or input into – that decision; I learned of it via a circulating Twitter message while I attended a meeting yesterday afternoon. I expect that almost every municipal government in Ontario had the same experience and acted with similar surprise,” Ferguson wrote.

Ferguson was disappointed there was no input from destination municipalities prior to the province making this announcement and his concern about the health and safety of the community are both are matters he raised with MPP Todd Smith and Premier Doug Ford.

The Mayor said he will continue to impress upon them the specific needs of Prince Edward County but ultimately, the province has the final say on this matter.

“The provincial government has made a decision and we are going to have to deal with it,” Ferguson said. “Visitors to our community are reminded that public safety and health protocols remain in place, and must be respected for the health and safety of our residents and businesses as well as for themselves. I am hopeful visitors will be patient and considerate if they visit any of our retail outlets or restaurants, or if they go elsewhere in The County. I ask of you the same consideration that was included in my posting last night. Now is not the time to take sides and argue, now is the time for us to come together as a community, to work together to overcome the circumstances presented by the pandemic, and to be respectful, tolerant, considerate and compassionate. In so doing, we will get through this together.”

“Just so there is no misunderstanding, I will continue to fiercely advocate for the needs of our community with the provincial (and federal) government to insure The County, its businesses and residents receive the consideration and respect they deserve,” said the Mayor.

Whether income is gained or lost, the repercussions of reopening STAs may not be seen for months to come. In the meantime, the County remains divided on an issue that seems impossible to bridge, that of livelihood and life itself.