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Tourists flock to restricted places on February long weekend, despite stay-at-home requests

couple taking a selfie in winter

Updated February 22, 2020

BY SOUTHGREY.CA STAFF — On Tuesday, February 16, Grey County finally returned to a less restrictive COVID-19 Response Framework Yellow - Protect Category of public health and workplace safety measures. This came, following 52 straight days of provincewide lockdown which began December 26, during which many businesses, as well as recreational amenities, remained closed.

You would think that, given the lockdown restrictions we were under, and that for many Ontarians, relief in the form of relaxed provincial orders was just around the corner for us, the recent Family Day long weekend would not be a good time to be out-and-about and buck the stay-at-home requests being made by government and Public Health officials.

Think again.

According to the Niagara Falls Review, large numbers of tourists visited Niagara Falls this past weekend, despite the closure of most local businesses. This week, social media has been buzzing with pictures and comments from residents frustrated by a perceived lack of consideration by visitors, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

Local amenities and unamused residents were no different. "People, who do not live in our communities, have come in great numbers, invading our communities," said Sharon Wickens, resident of Eugenia where the nearby Grey Sauble Conservation Area park at Eugenia Falls is closed for the winter. "On any given day and especially Saturdays and Sundays, we, the community, observe increased traffic and congestion on our roads. Many vehicles are parked on the streets, making it difficult to pass by due to the snowbanks. With people parking on the side of these roads, the potential of meeting another vehicle is dangerous or making every attempt to avoid people walking is difficult."

Visitors from larger urban areas, where pandemic restrictions have been the most severe, are often blamed for this kind of reckless behaviour. Residents of Toronto, Peel, Barrie and other areas of Ontario are thought to be lured here by the natural beauty, open spaces and much lower COVID-19 case numbers.

When asked why they had entered a closed park during Ontario's stay-at-home request, visitors to Eugenia Falls explained that while they saw the sign indicating the park was closed, "they did not feel it was for them to follow — they had come a long way to see the falls and still planned to go into this area no matter what," said Wickens.

Adherance to signs and the threat of fines don't seem to adequately deter tourism during COVID-19 restrictions. Sharon Wickens exclaimed, "They were told that they were trespassing and would be fined. Still, it did not affect their plans!"

Pandemic fatigue could be the culprit.

Pandemic fatigue is the state of being worn out by recommended precautions and restrictions relating to a pandemic. It has become the latest buzz-phrase, explained by Scientific American magazine, as not just one phenomenon but likely stemming from several causes. "Some of these include political and social trends, such as changes in libertarian attitudes or diminishing trust in scientific authorities," they conclude.

From a recent article in Scientific American, "Life during the pandemic is brimming with tasks requiring control and mental effort, and so the widespread subjective experience of mental exhaustion is not surprising. We are constantly adjusting to new rules and policies. Everything from working to getting groceries to holiday shopping is different than what we know, involves new rules and protocols, and so requires cognitive control to plan out novel behaviors and monitor what we’re doing every step of the way. And for many of us, we are faced with ongoing costs of multitasking, dividing attention between work, children and other priorities all at once. To succeed in this environment requires heavy engagement of our control systems, and so we experience the cost of this mental effort. Changes in either the perceived value or efficacy of these behaviors will make those effort costs harder to tolerate over the long term and compliance will decline."

Where does that leave the rest of us who perhaps, tolerate those ongoing costs with a higher sense of duty towards our fellow-man, while unwittingly bearing the virus-spreading consequences of the pandemic-fatigued tourists who visit our area?

The answer is, so far, escaping those in charge. Having never dealt with a pandemic before, many government and Public Health officials are shrugging their shoulders over this dilemma and erring on the side of not rocking-the-boat too much, lest they trigger an larger increase in antisocial behaviour among residents. Until now, governments have been very reluctant to attach legal penalties to counterproductive behaviour such as the refusal to wear masks or the keeping of acceptable distances apart from one-another.

Sharon Wickens has taken her concerns to Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks, Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen and her municipal Councillors, OPP and the office of MPP Bill Walker.

According to Grey Highlands Councillor and Police Services Committee member Dane Nielsen, Council has had discussions about the issue, fielding complaints and concerns from citizens across the municipality. Nielsen is frustrated, but realizes there's not a lot than can be done about it. "While the majority of our residents are maintaining a very healthy and safe environment, these visitors aren't respecting our residents and property," he said, adding, "but there's nothing you can do to stop people from coming." Instead, he recommends calling the OPP or municipal bylaw officer to report instances of trespassing or other bylaw infractions but also notes that local police and bylaw enforcement is often restricted by a lack of available manpower.

At the January 26 meeting of the Grey Highlands Police Services Board, OPP reported 49 COVID-19-related occurances in 2020. These are violations of provincial orders handed down by the Ontario government in order to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In each of these incidents, tickets or fines may or may not have been given out.

Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen explained, “Grey Highlands is in a unique position in that the destination spots are not municipally owned lands. However, Grey Highlands is working together with it’s partners and the property owners to develop ways to help alleviate some of the congestion and parking issues related to these properties. Any safety concerns related to parking or blocking of roads should be directed to OPP for enforcement. Although the influx of people to the area may have been exasperated by the pandemic, it’s no secret that Grey Highlands is one of the most beautiful parts of Ontario,  clearly more people have discovered that.” 


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