Regional leaders ask cottagers to stay cautious as restrictions ease

Starting on May 4, the regions of Quebec that have been closed to non-essential travel, with the help of police checkpoints, will be opened again. The government is still asking Quebecers to avoid unnecessary trips between regions—but could the reopening encourage cottage-owners to rush outside of their primary regions?

The council of mayors for the regional county municipality of Nicolet-Yamaska had already expressed its concerns before the Easter weekend. While the municipality was relatively spared by COVID-19, its mayors feared that cottagers would bring the coronavirus with them and pass it on to locals.

The idea of closing cottages was floated, but the municipality didn’t have powers to do this. However, prefect Geneviève Dubois, the head of the municipality, said she was pleasantly surprised to learn that the long weekend didn’t spur many people to go to their second home.

"I spoke recently with the Sureté du Québec to find out how things went,” she said. “I was told that we had increased scrutiny during the Easter weekend and that it went well… there weren’t too many people who tried to get to their cottages."

Dubois hopes this self-restraint will continue even if Quebec orders the gradual removal of police barriers. She also believes that with the flood season over, the context is now different.

"At Easter, there was a concern with the floods—people wanted to prepare their cottage for that, which was legitimate,” said Dubois. “But now the government still says to stick to essential travel, so I think opening cottages can wait a few weeks, allowing time to see how the situation evolves.”

She asks people from outside the region who own a second home there to wait patiently for a while longer.

"The municipalities want people to wait before returning en masse to their cottages. We know they’re stuck at home, but the context is unusual, and that’s why the requests are too," said Dubois. "It would be good if they kept it up."

The prefect of the Mekinac regional county municipality, Bernard Thompson, agrees with Dubois. Since Mekinac wasn’t one of the closed regions, with the exception of La Tuque, the police checkpoints didn’t stop people from other regions from going to Mauricie. But he still regrets that the checkpoints won’t be kept up.

"The roadblocks allowed the police to give information to the population much more than to give out fines, is my impression,” he said. “I think it would have been good if the police continued to do this work of informing people… it has helped us a lot so far, and if they disappear overnight, it could be a problem,” he said.

Thompson says he’s aware that the confined people who own a cottage want to get a change of scene and recharge their batteries. And he can’t see how the police could prevent them, especially without roadblocks. He’s therefore asking cottagers to be careful and responsible in their trips, even if it means stocking up before leaving home rather than once at their cottage.

"I want people to realize that measures must remain. Social distancing is the most important,” he said. “And if I had to travel everywhere, wearing a mask would be essential. It’s not perfect, but it can give a little protection," he said.

The regional municipality of Maskinonge is one of the places where there are many cottagers, with at least 2,000 secondary residences on its territory. Its prefect, Robert Lalonde, said he wasn’t worried about the message sent by the province on Wednesday. However, he calls for caution.

"I’m asking people to be careful, to keep their distance—social distancing—and to wear masks if they travel,” he said. “It would be a big problem, if not, because the confinement would last longer.”

Lalonde says he is ready to face the opening of cottages, keeping in mind that this has never been formally prohibited. Still, he bemoans the fact that a large number of cases of COVID-19 have occurred in his region. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 177 people have contracted COVID-19 in Maskinonge, making it the third most affected municipality or city in Mauricie and the fourth if Centre-du-Quebec is included.

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on May 1, 2020.

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