In a media briefing today, Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) reiterated his oft-repeated recommendation that seasonal residents remain at their primary residences until there is further reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases across Ontario. His comments echo those of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.
“People come here from southern Ontario because it’s a beautiful area and it’s accessible and normally that’s a very good thing but this is a pandemic year, a very different year, and we are concerned that having a large influx of people from out of jurisdiction could increase transmission in our district, and so we are asking that people not go to your cottages at this time,” said Dr. Gardner. “There will come a time in which that would be okay but it is not a good thing to be doing now. We’re also concerned about the potential to strain the healthcare system. Right now it’s functioning well, but if we have a large influx of people that could change.”
Dr. Gardner’s latest recommendation comes on the same day that Premier Doug Ford alluded to a possible easing of the Province’s stance—which to date has been a recommendation that people remain at their primary residences—during his own COVID-19 update: “…as we see the numbers [of cases] come down, and by May the twenty-fourth hopefully the numbers are going to continue coming down, we’re going to have a heart-to-heart conversation this week with the mayors. There’s only so long you can hold back taxpayers from going to their cottages. I’ll give you an example in Muskoka. In Muskoka, the vast majority of taxes are paid through cottages, cottagers, and the economy up there, when I was speaking with the mayor, people rely, the retail stores in cottage country, rely on cottagers from beginning of May, probably April, all the way through to September, that’s their livelihood. So if people are responsible and numbers continue to go down, we’ll have that conversation.”
Ford said that he would be getting input on the matter from cottage country mayors in a phone conference later this week.
“They’re gonna want to go to their vacation property. I understand,” he added. “I think we’ve made the right decision about the cottagers, but as we see the numbers go down, let’s just see what happens.”
When asked about Ford’s comments, Dr. Gardner said he thought the premier was “stating a fact as he sees it which is that there’s a strong desire for people to go and access their properties, and he needs to make decisions based on many things. The advice I give is based on health and focusing on my mandate and my concern that there would be potential for increased transmission.”
Part of his concern is based on the per capita difference in COVID-19 cases compared to the GTA, he said.
“There’s definitely a gradient when I look at the map of the province about the per capita incidence of this disease,” said Dr. Gardner. “It’s higher the farther south you go towards the urban centres like Toronto and the GTA… Simcoe Muskoka has got about one-third per capita incidence of COVID-19 versus the GTA municipalities.”
The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit in southern Ontario recently issued an order prohibiting people from travelling to their secondary residences. Dr. Gardner said SMDHU had reviewed that order and decided against doing the same.
“I came to the conclusion that although there would be potential merit on a health basis…if I were to issue that order, it would require us as a health unit alone to enforce it. We do not have nearly the resources required to enforce an order like that with the tens of thousands of people who have properties in our jurisdiction and so I decided that we were not going to try. We instead have been providing messaging to the public and advice to the Province.”
He added that the Health Protection and Promotion Act, the only legislation the health unit has at its disposal for such an order, is entirely enforced by employees of local public health and not by police or bylaw officers.
“Normally the act is not meant to be applied to something of this magnitude. It’s usually meant to apply to a very specific local issue involving a very limited number of people in which case we would definitely have the resources to manage it ourselves,” he said. “On top of that this is an extraordinary circumstance where all of our resources are pretty well tied up in responding to COVID.”
To aid in his efforts to encourage people not to travel to their cottages, Dr. Gardner sent an email today to cottage associations across Simcoe Muskoka asking for help in communicating the need for their members to remain at their primary residences.
“As cases of COVID-19 continue to arise in Simcoe and Muskoka and elsewhere in the province, I ask your assistance in supporting and sharing the Ontario government’s and Chief Medical Officer of Health’s message (most recently communicated in correspondence to Medical Officers of Health on May 1, 2020) to stay safe and stay home at your primary residence,” he wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by Doppler. “I know that normally at this time of year many people begin spending time at their cottages, enjoying the natural beauty of Ontario’s lake-lands. However this is a year like no other, in which we have all been managing pandemic COVID-19, which is still circulating in our communities, particularly in larger urban centres.”
He asked that seasonal residents “postpone going to their cottages, even for a day trip, until a later time when the leadership within the public health system communicates that the rate of COVID-19 transmission is truly under control and sufficiently low to not pose these hazards.”
Recognizing that some will still choose to go to their secondary residences, he wrote, “If that is what they choose to do despite the request to not do so, they need to ensure that they follow public health measures, including: physical distancing of at least 2 metres from other people; staying at their cottage as much as possible; purchasing food and medications in their own community before arriving at their cottage and limiting their visits to the local community for essential shopping only; no gatherings of more than five people unless they are all from the same household; practicing proper hand washing and cough hygiene, including frequent handwashing; and self-isolating if they develop symptoms.”
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