Manitoba’s cottage country greeting May long with some unease as COVID fears linger

By | May 14, 2020

On any other May long weekend, the influx of visitors to Manitoba’s cottage country would be celebrated by resort towns dependant on tourism. 

But things are different in a pandemic. 

“The year-round residents are a little apprehensive about the tourism starting up with the day-trippers because they have a little sense of fear built up,” said Tyler Gray, who owns various restaurants and kiosks on the shores of Grand Beach. 

Gray’s businesses thrive when the beach is packed. He’s expecting a busy summer as the threat of COVID-19 restricts travel options and a rash of festival cancellations limits recreational choices. 

Already, he’s seeing people flock outside. He cannot remember the parking lot outside the Brokenhead Wetland Interpretive Trail on Highway 59 being as busy this early in May. 

He’s expecting more of the same this long weekend as temperatures soar above 20 C.

But he gets why some of his neighbours in Grand Beach are worried.

“They know their community is safe. They want to keep it safe,” he said.

Gray doesn’t hold the same fears, he said, so long as beach-goers respect six feet of separation while waiting in line for burgers and hotdogs. He’s relying on ground markers, robust sanitization and a queueing system to keep people divided. 

Tyler Gray will have strict physical distancing measures in place once beach-goers start flocking to his eateries along the shores of Grand Beach. (Facebook/Gray’s, Grand Beach)

Gimli business owner Stefan Tergesen said tourism season is like a “double-edged sword.”

“We want to welcome everyone back, but we’re sure hoping everyone’s gonna be doing what we have to do to make sure that we’re not infecting each other.”

Early in the pandemic, Tergesen said residents worried their grocery store would be emptied by temporary guests, or their small hospital swamped with patients.

Business owners are now feeling comfortable due to the sanitization measures they’ve imposed. 

Crowded stores a thing of the past

At H.P. Tergesen’s, a 121-year-old general store that’s withstood two pandemics, he’s busy acquiring Plexiglass dividers and air purifiers for each change room. He doesn’t know if he’ll be ready for the long weekend, but once he can open, he’ll prioritize sidewalk sales to keep people outside.

“It’s going to be tough because very often my store is renowned for being crowded and that’s not an option anymore.”

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is urging any visitors to avoid making unnecessary stops on their way to their cottage or campsite.

“Stay home if you feel sick, because getting ill in a smaller centre can be overwhelming to a smaller local health-facility.”

RM of Gimli Mayor Lynn Greenberg said the coronavirus is in the back of everyone’s minds.

Gimli is one of a number of Manitoba’s favourite cottage country stops. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“The thing is, people have to do out here what they’re doing in Winnipeg — they have to physical distance, they have to follow the same rules,” he said.

In West Hawk Lake, business owners are asking visitors to take the coronavirus seriously — even in cottage country.

“You get lulled into that false sense of security when you come to the lake,” said Shaun Harbottle, owner of Crescent Beach Cottages, which rents out cottages for people who want a quick getaway.

“It’s human nature to want to visit people and I think that’s our big concern. We hope that people respect … the rules that we’ve put in place and that they have to remember that we’re the same as Winnipeg, we’re the same as everywhere else, you have to social distance.”

Outside his convenience store, Harbottle will place an outdoor sink to wash hands and said he won’t be afraid to turn customers away if they ignore it. 

“I do think that we’re expecting a busy weekend and I think people just have to get used to waiting” in lines, he said.

Harbottle added he isn’t worried the local health-care facility will be overrun. He said visitors are accustomed to driving to Winnipeg or Ste. Anne for significant medical needs.

‘I can’t invite’ you: Kenora mayor

Kenora’s mayor made headlines last month when he told Manitobans to stay away from his lake community.

The advice from health officials discouraging interprovincial travel into Ontario hasn’t changed, Dan Reynard said this week, but he acknowledges there’s no prohibition.

“I can’t invite people into the province, obviously, but we recognize that people are going to come here,” Reynard said.

While the Kenora Bass International is cancelled this year, the community is still expecting many visitors once COVID-19 visitor restrictions ease up. (Kenora Bass International/Facebook)

If they do, he said, bring as many supplies from home as possible. If they must drive into Kenora, follow the sanitization and physical distancing measures.

He sent out a news release Thursday with the Lake of the Woods District Stewardship Association, urging patience from the tourists who boost their economy.

“If you are travelling to your cottage anytime soon, it is with great reluctance that the City of Kenora asks you to resist the temptation or need to visit local businesses — just for the time being until the risk diminishes and it’s safe to do so,” the statement said.

Some retail stores in Ontario can begin reopening on May 19.

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