'We're not out of the woods yet': Muskoka mayors talk COVID-19

MUSKOKA — Optimism, gratitude and safety were the key themes of a webinar among local mayors on June 18, a virtual event sponsored by the Muskoka Lakes Association.

Moderated by Deborah Martin-Downs, vice-president of MLA, the webinar brought together panellists including: Mayor Paul Kelly of Gravenhurst, Mayor Graydon Smith of Bracebridge, Mayor Phil Harding of Muskoka Lakes; Mayor Anne MacDiarmid of Seguin, and District Chair of Muskoka, John Klinck.

The goal was to engage in respectful discussion and address the many concerns both seasonal and year-round residents of Muskoka had posed to elected officials over the course of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “It’s been a really difficult time for Canada, for Ontario and for Muskoka,” said Martin-Downs. “It’s confusing for many.”

Kelly shared that in the early days of the pandemic, fear of the unknown resulted in two primary concerns: the availability of health care and the availability of food and other necessary items. “The challenge was, of course, working through this with a map, without prior experience in it.”

That fear, along with the potential decrease in cottagers and the cancellation of many summer events — antique car and boat shows, Ribfest, Dockside Festival of the Arts and some farmers’ markets among others — manifested in a devastating loss for many Muskoka businesses which rely on tourism dollars, Mayor Smith explained.

“I hope people come to our community and support our businesses,” he said, noting he has seen activity pick up this past week. “But I’d ask people to take reasonable precautions. I think it’s completely appropriate for everyone to be wearing masks when they’re out in public.”

For the most part, Muskoka avoided the large numbers of COVID-19 cases seen throughout other parts of Ontario, Klinck pointed out. Just 4 per cent of the cases reported to the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit were in the Muskoka Region, he said, a reflection of the efforts of the community early on to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.

In the region’s long-term care homes and its 900 housing units, Klinck said zero cases were reported. “I’m very proud of that, and our staff and our facilities' people.”

Still, with a second wave potentially on the horizon, Klinck urged residents to stay vigilant. “It starts at home,” he said. “We’ve got to reinforce in our mindset that we’re not out of the woods yet.” And while $350,000 in disaster relief social funding has arrived from the province, he said food banks are still stressed under the weight of the current need.

Klinck also directed the public to the District of Muskoka website to stay up-to-date as communities reopen.

Martin-Downs asked each mayor about the financial status of their municipality as so many residents have been concerned about the possibility of tax hikes and the absence of community programming, particularly for kids.

Grant funding that typically keeps other community organizations afloat is still being provided in Bracebridge, Smith said. “If we can provide a little bit of a helping hand,” he noted, “that can make all the difference to some of these organizing groups to get them to 2021.”

Gratitude and pride in seeing communities rally together was a sentiment shared by each panelist, whether it was “The Maskateers,” a group of Gravenhurst residents who produced and distributed more than 3,000 face masks, or the way Bracebridge residents came together to help clean up after the June 10 tornadoes that touched down.

It was a more positive way of encountering the challenges of COVID-19 than the negativity and aggression that some seasonal residents and cottagers experienced. MacDiramid pointed out that those seasonal residents just might end up permanently making a home in Muskoka after the pandemic.

“I believe we’re going to have an increase in year-round residents, whether they renovate cottages or build new,” she said, which will require better broadband and child-care programs. “I think the demand on some of those types of services are going to increase and we, as municipalities, have to be prepared for that.”

Harding agreed, and to that end, updated the community on waste services. For now, weekly solid waste and recycling pickups are planned, an interim step as the District continues to meet with the province on its four-year transition program to remove all of Muskoka’s 88 bin sites.

Harding also thanked front-line workers, as well as each municipal council. “Our life has changed. Our business and townships and the way government works has changed forever. Let’s try to embrace it and work together.”

At its peak the webinar registered more than 175 viewers from across Muskoka as well as the U.S. According to Martin-Downs, 79 per cent were seasonal residents and 21 per cent year-round residents.

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