Like many other regions in Quebec with light or stable numbers of COVID-19 cases, in the MRC du Haut-Saint-Laurent the mayors have been discussing their concerns about the annual influx of summer residents and tourists, in particular from Montreal and other parts of the Montérégie, where cases and deaths continue to rise. As in the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships, in some parts of the Valley summer tourists can outnumber full-time residents. This is particularly true around Franklin and Ormstown. Lac des Pins, the second largest “camping à roulottes,” or trailer camp park, in the province, is located on Route 201 in the municipality of Franklin, close to its border with Ormstown. It’s estimated that on a busy summer weekend, Lac des Pins attracts as many as 8,000 people. Franklin’s population of only 1,688 souls, even if lumped in with all of Ormstown’s at 3,595, is dwarfed by such numbers. In the entire MRC, nine major campgrounds (Lac des Pins is the biggest) may account for 15,000 visitors or more. All local infrastructure, hardware and grocery stores and medical services in the MRC are scaled for the smaller permanent population.
Mayor Douglas Brooks of Franklin says that “even during a normal summer, our resources in the area are stretched when Lac des Pins and the other campgrounds are open. This year, with distancing and disinfection regulations, only a few people allowed in stores and many businesses still closed, I don’t know how we can cope.” Dr. Catherine Bélanger, who is the COVID-19 coordinator for the Haut-Saint-Laurent local health network, said, “It is definitely something we are keeping our eye on,” referring to the reopening of campgrounds. “We want to be proactive in making sure that people who are there [the campers] know how to access health services here.” (Under the present conditions, protocols at ERs and clinics are much changed from what was the norm before the pandemic.)
On May 13, the mayors of the Haut-Saint-Laurent MRC decided to be “proactive” in trying to communicate their concerns to the provincial ministers involved. Franklin’s Mayor Brooks says, “We want them to know that we aren’t comfortable with people coming out in large numbers to our area at this time, and in fact, our situation simply may not permit it.” He explains that, “Our first responders, our firemen, they are all volunteer services out here. We’ve suspended all [outdoor] fire burning so firemen don’t have to go out and expose themselves,” if the person making the fire loses control of it. “They run our ambulances too; first responders go to Lac des Pins and other campgrounds very often during a regular year in summer. We don’t think we can handle that kind of thing in such a year as this.”
Claire IsaBelle, the MNA for the Haut-Saint-Laurent, echoes both the website of Camping Quebec and the daily bulletins from the premier’s office. She mentions that “no decision has yet been taken on the matter for this summer, and the conditions to reopen campgrounds are not yet in place.” But when the time comes, the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la securité du travail (CNESST) will put out a guide of directives and rules. They will include the usual, hand-washing, masks and two metres of distance. IsaBelle points to Quebec’s recent decision to delay the opening of Montreal businesses as a reflection of government precautions. IsaBelle also wished to remind her constituents that the only campgrounds currently open are the few that have summer-long returning snowbird residents, who are also subject to these rules after their two-week quarantine upon returning. “Sincerely,” she says, “at this moment I have no information that would permit me to know when this particular decision will be made.”
Nancy Rochefort is the owner of Lac des Pins. She writes in her notice to clients that, if and when opening happens, “we intend to minimize traffic by offering several options … including not camping during the 2020 season without losing their site for 2021.” There will be fewer seasonal workers, and “Day visitors will not be admitted. We will therefore not be operating at full capacity this year.” Rochefort states that, if allowed to open, the campground will have new rules, including closing some common areas such as the community hall, dining room, and playgrounds. She does not mention the pools or shared laundries and bathrooms.
Rochefort wished to point to “the high level of precautions that we have already been applying for several weeks now to the Saint-Antoine-Abbé market, which we also operate. Rest assured that we will maintain the same rigour and vigilance in our campground.” None of the other seven campgrounds in our region, including Canne des Bois in Hemmingford, or Domaine de la Frontière Enchantée in Havelock, together about as large as Lac des Pins, have released detailed statements; they refer enquiries to Camping Quebec, which has posted an announcement saying only that campgrounds are closed for the present time. Even national groups are noticing the situation, as there are also crowded trailer campgrounds in Ontario and New Brunswick. The Green Party of Canada released a press release on May 13 suggesting it may be prudent to consider a nationwide closure for this summer of this type of tourism. “The concentration and physical proximity of campers could potentially trigger widespread transmission of COVID-19. The communal use of sanitary and recreational facilities lends itself to such a risk.” As was learned in Quebec after the spring break holiday, it doesn’t take many people to transmit this disease very broadly and, the Green Party notes, “the urban clientele of these campgrounds could potentially trigger an increase in rural outbreaks of the disease.”
In a map using conservative numbers to track the possible spread out of Montreal, the Green Party notes the very high population density of these temporary towns: 291 people per hectare in Lac des Pins, compared to 47 per hectare in the city. This means that even if campgrounds were to cut their residents by three-quarters, a large one like Lac des Pins would still have a population density about one and half times that of Montreal, the hotbed of contagion in Canada. The Green Party states: “If the provincial public health departments consider it impossible to ensure safety measures are in place for the 2020 season, then we urge the federal government to work with the provinces to provide a compensation package to impacted owners.”
The latter point is important. Franklin, like many other municipalities in the MRC, has many businesses that depend on tourists, whether here for overnight stays or agrotourism day-trips. The meeting on May 13 allowed all the mayors to discuss campground concerns, and to “agree on a willingness to sensitize these ministries … [about] the impacts of the reopening of campgrounds on public health and local businesses.”
“It’s really a tough call,” Douglas Brooks says. “We want those who have this decision to make to know we love our tourists and we depend on them in many ways. This is hard on us as well. We’ll all suffer some loss.” Brooks says it is of key importance for the government to assess the proper time to resume these activities. “Right now, the city of Montreal isn’t ready, we’re not ready.” His final point is that in the Haut-Saint-Laurent, “We’re a food-producing area, that’s an essential service. We don’t want to get the farmers sick out here. Empty shelves are worse than a cancelled camping trip.”