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As owners of the Baysville General Store in Muskoka, Chris Dacosta and Ember Cope, seen here on April 7, 2020, have seen things escalate.

Fred Lum

The number of people spending more than a week in Ontario’s cottage country recently has nearly doubled compared with 2019, even as Premier Doug Ford and local politicians have urged travellers to stay home to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The figures, part of a report that lays out travel destinations during the pandemic, found that while overall travel is down, tens of thousands of Ontarians have already moved to their cottage homes in popular destinations such as Muskoka, the Kawarthas and the Bruce Peninsula to ride out the pandemic.

Proportion of trips to Ontario cottage

country, by length of stay

2019

2020

Early February

to mid-March

Mid-March

to late April

80%

70

60

Fewer people are staying overnight

50

40

While more are staying longer than a week

30

20

10

0

8+

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

8+

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

LENGTH OF STAY (DAYS)

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Proportion of trips to Ontario cottage

country, by length of stay

2019

2020

Early February

to mid-March

Mid-March

to late April

80%

70

60

Fewer people are staying overnight

50

40

While more are staying longer than a week

30

20

10

0

8+

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

8+

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

LENGTH OF STAY (DAYS)

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Proportion of trips to Ontario cottage country, by length of stay

2019

2020

Early February

to mid-March

Mid-March

to late April

80%

70

60

Fewer people are staying overnight

50

40

30

While more are staying longer than a week

20

10

0

8+

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

8+

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

LENGTH OF STAY (DAYS)

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

With the traditional cottage-opening weekend just more than a week away and Ontario still registering roughly 400 COVID-19 daily cases, politicians have come under pressure to clarify whether the cottage season should go on as usual.

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At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Mr. Ford asked would-be weekenders and day-trippers to refrain from travelling to cottage country. “It’s not the party weekend it’s been in the past,” he said.

Earlier in the day, the Premier released a statement saying only those who own property in cottage country should consider heading there for now, and only if necessary.

According to travel data compiled by marketing research firm Environics Analytics, from mid-March to late April, people made 36,426 trips lasting eight days or longer to Ontario’s cottage country – nearly double the 18,893 trips recorded in 2019 for the same period.

Restrictions and advice on going to cottages and rural properties will vary among provinces and regions, Dr. Theresa Tam says, but the point should always be to avoid putting stress on local health systems that wouldn't be able to handle very many sick people. The Canadian Press

Those trip numbers were calculated using a database of mobile device locations collected through apps people installed on their phones. To ensure the locations can’t be tied back to any specific person, exact positions were randomly skewed and then aggregated to the postal code level.

The report defined cottage country as the tourism regions of Bruce Peninsula, Southern Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, Haliburton Highlands to the Ottawa Valley, Kawartha and Northumberland, Muskoka, Parry Sound and Algonquin Park. Trips to cottage country were identified by looking for devices whose evening locations were substantially different from their usual locations.

Nic Ahola, 43, seen here on April 7, 2020, has cancer and a compromised immune system, so he moved to the cottage with his wife in late February to better self-isolate.

Fred Lum

Travel to cottage country has dropped substantially in Ontario, according to Environics data. Nearly 1.5 million people visited cottage country between February and late April, compared with roughly 2.1 million for the same period last year.

Larry Filler, a senior vice-president at Environics Analytics focused on the tourism industry, said he was surprised by the amount of travel still occurring, however. “There has been a big decline,” he said, “But it’s not nearly as big as [people] may think.”

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Wherever people go – be it to cottage country or big cities – they’re staying put longer, Mr. Filler added. “I think this is more about family and friends, and staying close to someone you care about."

Of all trips made to cottage country from Toronto, most hailed from only a few neighbourhoods. Whereas in 2019 much of downtown Toronto made its way to cottages between mid-March and mid-April, in 2020 cottagers mostly came from the affluent neighbourhoods of Rosedale, Forest Hill, the Bay Street corridor and City Place.

Amid fears of the virus spreading – and overloading health care and other essential services – uncertainty about the number of visitors this summer has raised tensions between locals, who live there year-round, and cottagers, who own property, rent, or stay at hotels and B&Bs.

As owners of the Baysville General Store in Muskoka, Chris Dacosta and Ember Cope have seen things escalate. “I never really knew much about tension before moving here,” said Mr. Dacosta, who bought the store with Ms. Cope just more than a year ago.

The store doubles as the local water cooler, and patrons share the latest gossip as they shop for milk and eggs. Mr. Dacosta said one customer told him they’d witnessed a fist fight at a grocery store over the last head of lettuce; another, a local, told him they got into it at the garbage dump after the driver behind them – a cottager – tried to leave their trash at the front gate after the dump had closed for the day.

Volume of Toronto residents traveling to cottage country by dissemination area

Count of visitors,

mid-March to mid-April

Low

High

2019

Lake Ontario

2020

Lake Ontario

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Volume of Toronto residents traveling to cottage country by dissemination area

Count of visitors,

mid-March to mid-April

Low

High

2019

Lake Ontario

2020

Lake Ontario

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Volume of Toronto residents traveling to cottage country by dissemination area

Count of visitors,

mid-March to mid-April

Low

High

2019

Lake Ontario

2020

Lake Ontario

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Volume of Toronto residents traveling to cottage country by dissemination area

Count of visitors,

mid-March to mid-April

Low

High

2019

2020

Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Volume of Toronto residents traveling to cottage country by dissemination area

Count of visitors,

mid-March to mid-April

Low

High

2019

2020

Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario

SOURCE: ENVIRONICS ANALYTICS

Some of those escaping to their cottages said that, if anything, they’re isolating more effectively than they ever could in the city.

Nic Ahola, 43, is one such escapee. Mr. Ahola has cancer and a compromised immune system, so he moved to the cottage with his wife in late February to better self-isolate, getting groceries delivered from the Baysville General Store. He drives back to Toronto only for his chemotherapy treatments. “I have to look after my health," he said. "This is the place where we chose to be.”

Laura Howe, 62, also left Toronto in March for her cottage in the Bruce Peninsula to get away from the pandemic. “There are locals who seem to be really worked up about cottagers being around,” she said.

In hindsight, Ms. Howe, a middle-school teacher, said she wished she’d stayed home, since she’s squeezed into a 1,200 square-foot space with her husband and two sons while all four are still working remotely. “I’m not sitting here with my feet up in a hammock eating bonbons,” she said.

A few mayors have urged all who aren’t residents or owners to stay away. Phil Harding, mayor of Muskoka Lakes, said tourists and visitors “are people who we do not want to see.” In nearby Huntsville, Mayor Karin Terziano also discouraged visitors.

Some areas have taken drastic measures to ward people off. The mayor of Huron-Kinloss in Bruce County issued an emergency order on March 30 blocking water turn-on service to seasonal residents’ homes. The order warns that violators could be jailed for up to a year and fined up to $10-million.

Plumbers have also refused to turn on water for cottagers. Peter Briggs, owner of Briggs Pumps and Plumbing in Huntsville, said his company was one of many that had decided to postpone water services.

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