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Would you rather spend quarantine in the city or country? For those that have the option, the choice is clear. Since March, urbanites have been migrating to cottage country during quarantine, taking advantage of more space, the opportunity to be together with family, and distance themselves from urban virus hotspots.

Tensions are rising between city dwellers fleeing the city and cottage country residents — as Ontario starts to ease COVID-19 restrictions, permanent residents are concerned about the potential impacts on their small communities. In all of this, who should stay and who should go?

Fleeing the pandemic: Trading city for the country 

Four months into Canada’s pandemic response, small communities are frustrated by the ripple effects of this decision, fearful that the influx of people will tax limited resources or walk-back efforts to #FlattenTheCurve. Municipal leaders are trying to cool a brewing divide between year-round residents and temporary cottagers, with an eye to the possible reality of a second COVID-19 wave this fall.

COVID cases in Toronto and Muskoka

Source: Public Health Ontario, data pulled June 16, 2020

While the summer is now in full swing, residents of small towns have been expressing their dissent throughout the pandemic. Reports of refusals to turn on water for cottages or shutting down boat ramps have been visible protests to cottager relocations. Full-time residents have been concerned over the unseasonal population increase and the impact it has on resources, accessibility, and virus mitigation strategies. These aren’t isolated incidents either; Alberta and British Columbia have seen their own clashes between residents and visitors, resulting in smashed car windows, slashed tires, and vehicle-long key scratches. 

Lack of rules create confusion 

Throughout the entirety of COVID-19, it has been clear there is no playbook for a pandemic like this. The Township of Muskoka Lakes mayor admits that, unless the government closes highways, there are no regulatory levers to prevent city-based cottagers from visiting their residences. 

Secondary residence owners are subject to municipal property taxes, just like their permanent residence counterparts — technically allowing them unfettered access to cottage country, irrespective of a pandemic. Some advocates have even pointed out that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms supports mobility rights, using the Charter to justify prolonged cottage stays. It is clear that the lack of guidance is leading to confusion and stress, as all residents try to coexist. 

Permanent vs. temporary residents in Muskoka

Source: The District Municipality of Muskoka

The reality of the situation is complex 

While the rules may be grey, the reality is playing out in technicolour. Mayors in rural towns are pleading with visiting cottagers, begging for them to respect the town resources and adhere to social distancing measures. However, given recent concerns about quarantine fatigue, a relaxed adherence to social distancing and personal hygiene, this may all be falling on deaf ears, especially as summer approaches.

Population difference between Toronto and Muskoka

Source: Public Health Ontario, data pulled June 16, 2020

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Public health officials are recommending cottagers have an exit strategy in place, should they head north for quarantine respite — including a plan if someone in the household falls sick. Leaving to minimize spread and seeking health care in your home city should be integral parts of that plan. Reducing the load on rural grocers is also the suggested neighbourly thing to do;  bringing your own supplies to the cottage can decrease contact with permanent residents and minimize wait times at busy stores. 

Far-reaching impacts are possible 

This urban-rural divide is more complex than just relocating for fresh air.  It impacts local economies, has considerable ethical implications, and may have negative repercussions for the vectors of the virus. Retailers eager to stoke a post-pandemic economy are happy for an uptick in tourism, but acknowledge it comes at a price — potentially costing their community its health. When small businesses are already struggling under the weight of COVID-19 regulations that are designed to keep consumers and vendors safe, they risk greater exposure as visitor numbers surge, especially if they try to open before they’re ready. The hospitality and Airbnb industries are looking forward to greater occupancy allowances; one Blue Mountain Airbnb host has reported monthly loss projections of up to $11,000 due to COVID-19.

The ethics of “disaster gentrification,” a term coined by U.S. researchers to explain the flight from urban metropolises for smaller towns, pose different questions. While people understandably are craving the feeling of normal life, how much of a risk should they impose on others to satisfy that craving? The option to spend quarantine in any other place other than one’s primary residence is one that few have. While it is still relatively early in the pandemic to track how far-reaching individual choice is impacting the lives of those without similar options, the urban-rural issue calls attention to another divide: one of wealth and privilege. 

Amongst all of this, it is important to remember that the future vector of the virus is currently unknown. A second wave of infections is expected this fall, and any return to “normalcy” is not expected to come until there is a vaccine. Ontario hasn’t yet achieved herd immunity, which would protect against the second wave. 

Without measures in place to ensure protection, the dispersed urban population may continue to strain small-town healthcare into continued COVID-19 spread. For those cottagers that do return to the city, the directives are unclear: is a 14-day quarantine required? Will the pattern of the virus travel in reverse, moving COVID-19 from rural to urban areas? We are still struggling to understand the best practices for containing this public health crisis. 

Compassion is essential 

Predicting the impact of this urban migration is difficult, especially as the COVID-19 response continues to evolve daily. At the very core of this debate are people desperate to protect themselves, and their families, in any way they can. 

#FlattenTheCurve has proven that collective movement, with compassion amongst communities, is a successful and sustainable way to move through COVID-19. Amongst all of this, it is critical to remind ourselves that both sides of the urban-rural divide are clamouring for the same outcome: to be healthy and happy throughout this unprecedented time in history.

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