Located roughly 200 kilometres north of Toronto, Muskoka has long been a popular summer retreat for Bay Street’s banker crowd. And while COVID-19 has complicated traditional vacation plans, the area’s mayor is encouraging cottage owners to make the trip.
“I’m concerned because many of our seasonal residents are not feeling as welcome. And they are welcome,” Phil Harding, mayor of the Township of Muskoka Lakes, Ont. told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview Wednesday.
Some of the confusion among cottagers dates back to April, when Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged people to stay home.
“Please, this long weekend, do not go to your cottage. We can’t stress that enough,” Ford said to reporters during a press conference.
While the provincial government has since started to ease lockdown restrictions, Harding said Muskoka has to make up for lost ground.
“If you keep this economy locked down until September, it’s really like an 18-month lockdown because we didn’t get a chance to start up this year and it will take us until next year to get back.”
Harding said in recent days, he has spoken with local business owners who rely heavily on summer visitors.
“Some of our retail shops are starting to open, which is great. We don't have any malls so we are thankful about that,” he said.
He also noted cottage projects have kept hardware stores busy, and sellers of beach attire are expected to survive. But he said retailers focused on, for example, high-end clothing, may struggle due to the restrictions on social gatherings.
“Muskoka is very social place and people tend to have dinners with at least eight to 10 people.”
In some cases, owners have opted to self-isolate and work remotely from their cottages for months.
“Nobody is selling their cottage because they realize they can live in Muskoka,” said Harding, who also works in the real estate industry.
Restaurants and bars are eagerly awaiting the second stage of Ontario’s reopening so that they can serve customers on their typically busy patios.
Turtle Jack’s, part of the MTY Food Group Inc. and one of Muskoka’s most popular spots, is hoping to offer a contactless pickup-and-delivery service starting on June 18. That includes an option for boaters.
“You can text in your order and pick it up on your boat,” Jim Lishman, brand president for Turtle Jack’s, told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview Friday.
Lishman is also coordinating efforts to safely house the many students who come to work for Turtle Jack’s during the summer months.
“We rent anywhere between eight and 10 cottages for them. So we’re figuring out how to do that with social distancing.”
Meanwhile, as short-term cottage rentals resume and local resorts slowly reopen, businesses in the area are putting an emphasis on communication.
ClubLink, which operates popular golf courses, has laid out an extensive list of COVID-19 policies at its resorts, including cleaning protocols and best practices for guests.
Harding also has advice for vacationers and cottage-goers on how to handle the behaviour of those around them.
“If there are too many people on a dock, you might have to contact the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and ask them to step in,” Harding said. “That said, it’s really easy to point a finger at someone else. I’m always asking people to try focus more on what you need for you and your family.”