The distance between the piazzas of Rome and the snowshoe paths of Ontario’s Buckshot Lake can’t properly be measured in kilometres, even in normal times.
But Leslie Hoyt and her husband, Ken, are feeling especially grateful for the world of difference that lies between the Eternal City and Cottage Country this week.
It was only last week that the Ottawa couple were escaping Italy after a vacation was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, they were comfortably holed up in self-quarantine at their winterized cabin near Plevna, Ont. – part of a growing cohort of Canadians fleeing cities for the natural social distance and fresh air of the country.
“Up here, it doesn’t even feel like COVID-19 exists,” Ms. Hoyt said.
The trickle out of cities has provided an escape valve for some families. It has also created tension in regions such as Ontario’s Muskoka and B.C.'s Gulf Islands, where some year-round residents are anxious about an influx of urbanites bringing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and overwhelming local health care.
The flight to well-appointed lakes and islands has also exposed an uncomfortable divide in the way different classes of Canadians are able to cope with the virus, with many low-income city residents struggling to pay rent, even as others retreat to second homes.
Rural isolation was just what the Hoyts needed, though, after their difficult exit from one of the world’s hardest-hit countries. About 10 days ago, they were in the picturesque Tuscan city of Lucca. But when the Florence airport shut down, they had to “scramble” to get out, Ms. Hoyt said.
Finally they found a flight out of Rome and travelled there carrying a piece of paper testifying that they were among the few remaining permitted classes of travellers (foreigners trying to get home).
“We were the only people on the train,” Ms. Hoyt said. “It was quite apocalyptic in its look.”
Fortunately, the journey to the cottage was less harrowing – just a two-hour drive west from their home in Ottawa, then a 600-metre snowshoe down an unplowed lane.
With the cabin’s baseboard heating, her husband is able to do his jigsaw puzzles, and with lots of space outside they can stretch their legs during their 14-day self-quarantine.
The serenity of their little world on Butterball Lane is a jarring contrast with the frighteningly rapid spread of COVID-19 that is a singular point of focus everywhere else.
“It’s actually quite surreal,” Ms. Hoyt said.
Local governments and full-time residents in some parts of rural Canada are trying to maintain their relative calm amid the surge in early-season cottagers. The mayor of North Frontenac, the township that includes Plevna, sent a community e-mail last week asking cottagers to self-isolate for 14 days once arriving in the area and to avoid “panic buying” at local grocery stores.
In the Muskoka town of Gravenhurst, meanwhile, Mayor Paul Kelly said he has seen lots of grumbling on social media from the town’s year-round population about cottagers potentially straining health systems during the pandemic.
On Galiano Island, one of several islands between Vancouver and Vancouver Island that are used by city dwellers as summer getaways, locals are worried about their community becoming a safe house during the pandemic.
"We don't have the resources for all these people," said Tahirih Rockafella, who both runs the Daystar Market, one of three grocery stores on the island, and volunteers with the Galiano fire department. "It was disturbing the amount of tourists who were coming over on the boat who weren't alerted to the situation."
Carol Wilson, who makes her living by renting out a small cottage on the island, said she got a flurry of calls last week from people wanting to rent her place for several weeks, saying they had decided to get away from it all. She turned them all down. She's concerned that there are some others on the island still accepting bookings.
The “stay home” message has gone global, with rural authorities from North Wales to Southern California asking regular visitors to remain in their cities. Norway has gone even further, banning citizens from their country homes during the pandemic.
The experience of Sun Valley, Idaho – a popular resort town for wealthy residents of Los Angeles and Seattle – shows why such places are feeling anxious. Late last week, the state had 24 confirmed cases; 17 of them were in the county that is home to Sun Valley.
Roger Keil, a professor in the faculty of environmental studies at Toronto’s York University, said prosperous cottagers should remember they are generally not fleeing to some private idyll, but to fully fledged rural communities.
“People need to behave and show the same principles of social solidarity that are expected from all of us in the current crisis,” he said. “People are moving from the so-called dense urban centre to the cottage, but entering another community with its own health needs.”
Chris Seip said he’s trying to be a good neighbour while he waits out the pandemic with his family at their place on Bigwin Island near Bracebridge, Ont., where they have already been for two weeks.
“It is a privilege. I am sensitive to that,” the Toronto resident said. “You have to blend in to society. That means practising social distance, not hoarding, not using your economic power as a hammer.”
Right now, he and his daughters are going for walks in the woods and playing lots of Monopoly. Soon, the girls will be busy with homework again because of an e-learning curriculum at their private school and the much-improved local internet.
Modern technology means that riding out the virus in the country is both easier than it would have been 10 years ago – and in some ways less relaxing.
Ms. Hoyt has been using the mobile data on her smartphone to create a WiFi hot spot and checking social media often.
“Everyone is still online and you’re just kind of glued to your computer screen,” she said. “I made a friend in Lucca and she posts constantly about how awful it is over there, just how sad and abandoned it is. So we feel lucky.”