Piano teacher Jenni Le Forestier girded herself for the fall. She feared the coming flood of tourists who would fill up her tiny hamlet within the bucolic town of Caledon, Ont., to see the leaves change colour.
Meanwhile, arts centre co-founders Jeremy and Jordan Grant wonder with an equal sense of dread where some of the visitors to Caledon have gone.
With the arrival of COVID-19, and now an emerging second wave of the pandemic, the two parties are watching the ebb and flow of the fall tourism season with concern, balancing their safety anxieties and economic needs.
COVID-19 has renewed old annoyances for some and made the future uncertain for others.
“Just taking my dog for a walk to get the mail, there were people on both sides of the road … not social distancing,” Ms. Le Forestier said.
“We have lost virtually all of our event business,” Jeremy Grant countered, reflecting the devastation to the town’s economy. According to a survey, four in 10 Caledon businesses had lost more than 75 per cent of their annual revenue as of July.
The tension this fall isn’t unique. It’s common in many Ontario places where Instagram-fuelled fall-colour frenzies are also playing out amid a pandemic. But it’s especially acute in Caledon, a scenic municipality northwest of Toronto, along the Niagara Escarpment and ecologically protected Oak Ridges Moraine.
The tourism hot spot has a magnetic appeal for day trippers and staycationers. The changing leaves, pumpkin patches and a richness in parks all draw city slickers to the picturesque locale.
Caledon is Peel Region’s northernmost municipality. The sprawling locale is bigger in size than heavily populated Peel neighbours Brampton and Mississauga combined, but has just 4.5 per cent of the region’s population. The rural part of the region is dotted with villages, several of which comprise Caledon.
Ms. Le Forestier’s village of Belfountain is tiny. There are just three roads, all of which have two lanes. There are roughly 200 people living in Belfountain’s 90 or so homes. The village is walking distance from several tourist attractions, including the Belfountain Conservation Area, the Caledon Ski Club and a leg of the Bruce Trail. Excursionists swell into the thousands on the weekends, easily overwhelming residents.
While locals, including Ms. Le Forestier, welcome the visitors, COVID-19 is front of mind. The smallness of Belfountain makes physical distancing difficult during the fall-colours season and the continuing problem of litter has taken on a new look. “I have picked up PPE [personal protective equipment] on my lawn thrown over the fence," she said. "I’ve picked up all kinds of gloves. It’s been a disaster.”
Ms. Le Forestier’s home has a heritage designation, which tends to attract rural explorers. “I had two women in my front yard two weeks ago taking pictures of the house,” she said. “I had to shoo a lady out of my house who walked in while I was changing my daughter.”
More than one section of her property’s fence is broken because of strangers sitting on them.
Yet COVID-19 is just the latest challenge in a long-running problem. “When there is no place to park, they park on your property, they park on your lawn,” said Judy Mabee, president of the Belfountain Community Organization. “They’ll have picnics on your front lawns. They will knock on your door and ask to use your washroom and ask for WiFi access.”
Ms. Mabee and fellow residents have proposed solutions such as shuttling people around. “But right now with COVID that is a little bit trickier,” Ms. Mabee said. "... We are trying to look at viable tourism opportunities and have people able to move around from community to community.”
Constable Iryna Nebogatova of the Caledon OPP detachment said police respond to trespassing, parking and traffic complaints. Police expect this season will be busy despite COVID-19 and, she said, “If you are planning to visit Caledon to see the changing fall colours, do not be surprised to see an increased police presence.”
For everyone who is wary of the crowds, though, there are those who are missing them.
The Grant brothers closed their business, the Alton Mill Arts Centre, for three months at the start of the pandemic. Over the summer, event bookings dried up.
“Occasional private rentals are a big part of what keeps these arts centres afloat, in effect subsidizing the monthly rents,” Jordan Grant said.
Retail sales and rent money from resident artists are keeping the business going, which Jeremy Grant sees as a sign of them “doing okay. We still have an operating arts centre. Virtually all of our artists have maintained their studio spaces.”
But Jordan Grant is pessimistic. He estimates that revenue has been down by as much as 60 per cent. “There is way less traffic from further away.”
The Town of Caledon conducted a COVID-19 business impact survey in July and found that 87 per cent of respondents reported a loss of revenue, and 41 per cent indicated losses of 75 per cent or more.
Not that businesses haven’t been trying to adapt.
Caledon’s tourism manager, Ben Roberts, said, “Many businesses have adopted new reservation systems and online shopping to allow for business and visitation to continue, while maintaining safety protocols for the benefit of both their employees and patrons.”
GoodLot Farmstead Brewing Co., a hop farm that brews branded beer on-site, is among the adapters. Phil Winters, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Gail Winters, said the business lost 37 per cent of its revenue “overnight” after bars and restaurants, who sell their beer, closed in the first wave of the pandemic.
But Ms. Winters then pivoted the business to include curbside pickup, “prompting a 70-per-cent jump in sales from what we were running out of our little shop,” she said.
Even with the rebound and an overall optimism, they still miss the full operation, which included a patio that in normal years drew crowds with its live music, food and beer. The patio was a means to create community as much as revenue, Ms. Winters said. “We were lamenting that we should have perhaps opened it [back up] because we miss that interaction.”
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