Ontario government shuts down all outdoor recreation amenities during the COVID-19 pandemic


KAGAWONG – In an attempt to keep summer residents away and keep local residents in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Billings Township council has voted in favour of closing off access to Bridal Veil Falls, the township parking lot, walking trails, the playground and dog park. As well, the township has banned smelt fishing on the Kagawong River. 

This action took place just a few hours prior to the province of Ontario announcing it was ordering the shutdown of all outdoor recreational facilities due to COVID-19. The provincial order is part of the provincial government’s extension of the declaration of emergency, which will now be in effect until April 13.

“The purpose of today’s meeting is to discuss our municipal facilities such as Bridal Veil Falls and the stairs and parking lot, the walking trails, our township parking lot (by Dig and Doug Cedar Furniture), the playground and dog park and to discuss enforcement,” said Billings Mayor Ian Anderson at a special emergency meeting of council held this past Monday afternoon. And we will be talking to the MMA (Manitoulin Municipal Association) and the UCCMM (United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising about cancelling the annual smelt season.

“I am sure everyone is aware that we have had two people test positive for COVID-19 on Manitoulin as of late yesterday,” said Mayor Anderson. “I participated in a meeting late last night called by Dr. Maurianne Reade (Manitoulin Island District Leadership COVID meeting), which included quite a list of invitees from municipalities and First Nations and some possible strategies were discussed. There is now heighted awareness of the confirmed cases and the concerns with any kind of spread of the disease on the Island. Much of what we’ve closed in the municipality, including use of the dump for instance, shows that we didn’t over-react unnecessarily, and now we need to consider these other facilities.” 

Mayor Anderson told council ruefully, “this past weekend I saw a lot of vehicles at Bridal Veil Falls parking lot. At one point, I saw 10 vehicles at once with a lot of people in very close proximity. People weren’t respecting the social distancing and provincial legislation to not have more than five people together in one area.” 

All members of council expressed their support of closing the municipal facilities that had been outlined. 

Councillor Bryan Barker said, “the decisions council is making are not decisions taken lightly. I certainly understand some decisions of council are not always popular, but they have been made in good faith for the safety of the entire community. I also saw the Bridal Veil parking lot full (this past weekend) with at least six kids climbing all over the grindstone. If people can’t police themselves, it is incumbent of us as council to do so for everyone’s protection.” 

“I feel we need to do this—our ultimate goal is to protect the people in our community and the island. We have to make these type of decisions,” said Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack. 

“This is no longer a Canada, or provincial problem; it is in our back yard,” said Councillor Sharon Jackson. “We need to close these facilities in order to keep people safe. We don’t have much choice.” 

Councillor Michael Hunt acknowledged, “normally I would be against closing our facilities, but this is a major health concern. I am definitely in favour of closing these facilities. We have to take action and put our foot down, and do what we can to keep this virus from spreading across the Island.”

Council was told by Mayor Anderson that earlier in the day by the Bridal Veil Falls and stairs and the parking lot (the latter which is owned by the province) at the falls, the entranceway was chained off by municipal staff. In addition, staff is exploring signage and barriers to put up in the area. As well, Megan Bonenfant, Billings deputy clerk said staff had contacted the MTO, which did not have any concerns with blocking off the parking lot at this time.

Council agreed again to have Bridal Veil Falls stairs closed as well as the parking lot, the township parking lot, walking trails, the playground and the dog park. 

Mayor Anderson said in talking to peers around Manitoulin there is at least one more issue to be looked at. “Within the next two weeks we will have an influx of people coming to the Island and our community (Kagawong) for the annual smelt season. These visitors come in large numbers, with virtually hundreds of people congregating at the (Kagawong) River.” He suggested council has a duty to discourage people from visiting, noting the township owns almost all the property where the smelt run takes place. 

Mayor Anderson said that widespread advertising would need indicating the ban on the smelt season in Kagawong. He has also made a request with other mayors and reeves on the Island to consider banning the smelt season in their area as well. “We need to do this as a collective and encourage people not to flock to Manitoulin to their camps.”

“I agree, it all comes down to safety and is necessary to protect people,” said Councillor Alkenbrack.

“I support closing down the smelt run,” said Councillor Barker. He pointed out the MNRF and the OPP are there every year at the Kagawong River, providing enforcement. “We might want to reach out to them to let them know of our decision and request they provide more support and enforcement.”

Council agreed they are in full support of banning smelt fishing in the community this year.

“Based on the best medical advice available, we are taking further steps today to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians by closing outdoor recreational amenities, like sports fields and playgrounds and extending our emergency orders to save lives,” stated Premier Ford in a statement released Monday evening. “We all need to work together and do our part to stop COVID-19 by staying home, practicing physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings.”

Those public and private, shared and communal amenities orders to close include: playgrounds, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, off-leash dog parks, beaches, skateboard and BMX parks, picnic areas, community gardens, park shelters, outdoor exercise equipment, condo parks and gardens and other recreational parks. 

Under the emergency declaration, fines can be laid for those who disobey provincial orders.