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What Coronavirus Means for Going to the Lake

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Like many Canadians in areas where this is a holiday weekend, my wife and I would normally be at our cottage, dragging outdoor furniture and small boats out of their winter dens, assessing the handiwork of mice and squirrels and generally getting set up for a summer of fun.

But the pandemic means that we’re not there this year. And like many matters pandemic-related, there is no consensus about what Canadian families fortunate enough to own a summer cottage, cabin, shack, chalet, camp — or whatever they’re called in your region — should do.

Regulations and advice to cottage owners vary not just by province but often by regions. And I also found this week that guidelines can be vague or even contradictory within the same region.

Alberta has eased many restrictions within the province, except in Calgary and Brooks, which have been comparatively hard hit. But the mayors of Banff and neighboring Canmore, an exceptionally beautiful area where many Calgarians have secondary homes, are urging outsiders to stay away for now.

At the same time, Quebec has largely lifted its internal travel restrictions. As a result, its ministry of public safety told me in an email that Quebecers are free to visit their chalets provided that they don’t travel the area after they arrive and that they bring all of their groceries and supplies.

Since then, Mr. Ford essentially left it up to local authorities to decide if cottagers will be welcome.

Emotions are strong on both sides. In some areas, the possibility of seasonal residents returning has inflamed the always lingering tensions between the year-round residents and the often much more affluent cottage owners.

Many cottagers, particularly those who live in high-rise buildings, see their second homes as an ideal solution for isolation.

But one obvious concern is that the coronavirus will hitchhike into these areas along with the cottagers. Year-round residents are also worried that their small hospitals will be overwhelmed as will places like grocery stores, which are now operating under physical distancing restrictions that curb the number of customers allowed entry at once.

But in Muskoka, where Mr. Ford and I each go to get away, along with about 80,000 other seasonal residents, there have been mixed messages. Dr. Charles Gardner, the medical officer of health for Muskoka and another popular cottage area, wants everyone to stay away. His concern is transmission, and he has noted that Toronto, home to many of the cottage owners, has three times the rate of Covid-19 infections as Muskoka.

The mayors of Muskoka, however, put out an open letter warning everyone to avoid creating an “us versus them” situation between seasonal and full-time residents. The letter left open the possibility that cottagers could come, while laying down some rules.

Phil Harding, the mayor of Muskoka Lakes township and one of the letter’s authors, spans both camps. He started coming to a family cottage in Muskoka from Toronto in 1966 and moved there during the 1990s. His township, which includes some of the most expensive cottages in Canada, has about 6,500 year-round residents and 13,500 cottagers.

While he was flatly against anyone without a cottage or home coming up to visit, he told me that he opposed any move to block cottagers from their properties.

“I certainly would never want a military-type state with checkpoints on every highway and municipal border,” Mr. Harding said. “Most people have been and will continue to be respectful of the virus and of other people and of different communities.”

Provided that they follow isolation rules and bring supplies, Mr. Harding’s message to cottagers is: “You are residents of Muskoka Lakes and you would be welcome to come.”

(For the record, the cottage I usually go to, my wife’s family’s cottage, is in a different Muskoka township than Mr. Harding’s.)

Soon the curse of black flies will become an effective means of keeping cottagers away in many parts of the country for the next month or so. So many people may not make their cottage decisions until Canada Day.

If you live in a community with vacation residences, I’d like to know what you think about cottagers returning to your area. Similarly, if you have a cottage, have you decided if you’ll use it this year? Please email me and include your full name and where you live or cottage at [email protected]. Unless you indicate otherwise, your comments may appear in a future Canada Letter.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

We’re eager to hear your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to [email protected].

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