I should be on vacation in Colombia right now, but instead I’m writing this from a makeshift workspace in my living room, facing outside, where it just snowed. In mid-April.
A lot of us have cancelled our travel plans for the foreseeable future. But some city-dwellers are still escaping during this period of lockdown—to cottage country. Whether they’re heading to their secondary properties or renting out vacation homes, many of us have noticed people on our social media feeds posting photos from idyllic settings that look a lot different from their primary residences.
Should we be mad at these people? Or could we consider joining them?
It certainly seems a lot more pleasant to be isolating in nature than in a cramped city apartment, not to mention there are far fewer people around, which makes physical distancing easier.
Despite those perks, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has advised people to “resist the urge” to go to the cottage, and many other officials, including Ontario Premier and noted cottage lover Doug Ford have echoed her comments.
We’ve been told that heading into rural communities, even if we own property there, could overwhelm healthcare resources and that we’re risking spreading the coronavirus. But is there a way to do it safely, if you bought all your groceries and supplies before hitting the road?
First, let’s look at the reasons not to head to the cottage (or cabin, if you’re from B.C.).
The most obvious concern is a person going from an urban community where there’s been community transmission to a rural community (especially one that has no known cases of COVID-19) risks exposing the rural community to the virus.
“Testing isn’t 100 percent. There are people walking around in cities that have it that just don’t know it, many of them. And they could actually introduce the disease to these towns,” said Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor specializing in health law and policy at the University of Calgary.
Some of those communities don’t have a hospital or only have a small hospital without the ventilators and intensive care units required to treat more serious cases of COVID-19, Hardcastle said.
Some people argue that if they get sick while in cottage country, they can simply drive back to a city. Even if that’s possible (it may not be, because a quick onset of symptoms could make a long drive difficult), Hardcastle said if locals become infected, the healthcare system could still be overwhelmed.
While it's true that cottage owners pay taxes and have rights, she said everyone is currently giving up certain rights for the sake of public health.
Getting supplies could also create issues.
Going into rural communities to buy groceries and supplies risks transmitting COVID-19 to other shoppers and employers. And if lots of out-of-towners do that, especially outside of the peak summer season, they could easily take up goods that are meant for locals.
“Nobody is set up for a sudden population surge in a fairly unpopulated area right now,” said Greta Bauer, an epidemiology professor at Western university.
“A lot of people say ‘well what if I bring my own supplies and I don’t go into town at all, so I don’t infect anyone?’,” Hardcastle added. “That’s what we all think… but it just doesn’t work out that way.” She said inevitably, some people will have to go into town because they forgot something, or they’ll have to stop for gas, or they may get into an accident and end up interacting with people that way.
“If people start doing it en masse that really increases the risk significantly,” Hardcastle said.
It also may not be easy to inhabit a cottage right now.
Last month, Mitch Twolan, mayor of Huron-Kinloss Township in Bruce County, a popular area for cottages, issued an emergency order that will prevent seasonal residents from having access to water until the pandemic is over.
Ontario has restricted short-term rentals to people in need of housing during the emergency, so technically it’s illegal to rent a cottage for the weekend. South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson said her municipality has hired a security team to enforce those rules. Maximum fines for violating the order are $100,000 for an individual or $10 million for a corporation.
In Quebec, authorities have set-up roadblocks to prevent non-essential travel into some communities.
Hardcastle said some cottages are also part of planned communities that can pass their own regulations restricting seasonal owners from accessing their homes.
Hardcastle said there are a couple circumstances in which it might make sense for a person to isolate at a cottage. If someone needed to isolate from another person in their household who was a healthcare worker or getting back from a trip, or if a person was fleeing a situation involving domestic violence, a cottage quarantine might be a good option.
But summer is almost here and there are signs that physical distancing is working. Is there any chance the guidelines may allow for a cottage getaway?
Bauer said that all the rules in place now will be revisited later as we learn more about the virus, including how immunity works.
“Emotionally this is going to be one of the hardest times.... This is where we’re being asked to give up a lot without it having hit everybody personally,” she said.
But if people don’t listen to the guidelines surrounding cottages now, there’s a risk that they’ll become strictly enforced laws, Hardcastle said, which is something we’ve seen happen with municipal parks and public spaces.
The Verdict: As for whether or not you should be pissed that your friends are at the cottage and you’re not, it’s easy to see why you would be. But unless they’re clearly hosting a rager, it’s probably best to let it go. Plus, you don't know everyone's motivations and circumstances.
“As with anything, I don’t think negative energy like that is really going to benefit you because there’s nothing you can do about it,” Hardcastle said.
And for the time being, as much as it's a bummer, stay put.