Concerns are being raised in the town of Mattawa, as several feet of snow and above seasonal temperatures seem to be drawing people from out of town into the area to use its trails, despite a province-wide lockdown.
"Even though we have lots to offer, we’ve got incredible hospitality, I would encourage snowmobilers to stay where they’re supposed to be snowmobiling," said Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer. "We are overwhelmed right now and our number one priority now is our citizens."
According to officials and the community, the town is seeing an influx of snowmobilers with hundreds coming over the past few weekends.
"There is no law saying people can’t travel," said Backer. "We’re looking for some guidance from the province at this time. We’re working diligently with the health unit because of the fact that people are not abiding by the rules of staying home even though there is no rules."
Now 10 months into this pandemic, with the northeast largely keeping its case counts under control, Backer fears this could be a setback to all of that hard work.
"I would hate to see, you know, people who have worked so hard in our community especially our health care workers, they’ve been working for 10 months straight," said Backer. "Even though, I know and I understand people need to do some recreation, I would ask people to adhere to the rules and to stay home."
The winter travellers have lead some to believe that more needs to be done by the Ford government.
"Maybe a travel ban should be put back in," said resident Charlie Miller. "Myself, I’m a contractor, if I can’t go to North Bay or Sudbury to do contracts, I suffer and I’m willing to suffer for the safety of everybody."
Backer added, "I certainly believe that there should be a rule in place. Even though, you know, we’ve got an amazing area and people are known for their hospitality, right now is not the time to travel! Stay home folks!"
However, a Mattawa motel is in support of these weekend guests, saying that it is an outside activity and with safety measures in place, they need the support.
"Our businesses are dying," said Valois Restaurant Motel owner Gautam Sharma. "We cannot pay our bills. We’ve also had a horrendous year because of COVID and we are doing our level best to survive."
At the Valois motel, Sharma said that all safety protocols are in place including individual entrances to all rooms and contactless check in and checkout.
"Doug Ford has allowed outside activities and we are all following the law," said Sharma.
Right now, non-essential travel isn’t illegal, just frowned upon, which is causing a divide in the town.
"We were all asked to stay home, stay local," said Mattawa resident Miller. "Some people are reading this that I don’t want the local businesses to be supported, but I do, but by locals that are in this area. Coming from down south, the hot spot, is not good. Coming from Quebec, is not good. It’s hot spots."
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) said that they are taking all calls related to COVID-19 concerns very seriously.
"We want people to remember what’s important here is people remain within their public health region and avoid any non essential travel," said Sargent Carlo Berardi, the media relations coordinator for the Northeast Region Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). "That’s the important thing here. The premier was on the camera [Friday] morning saying we’ve had a record number of COVID tests that were positive and they are asking the public to remain as close to their homes as possible."
There have also been some concerns with snowmobilers not following the rules, including riding on sidewalks. Backer said this is due to them being unfamiliar with the area.
"They just don’t know the rules and because we don’t have the man power to relay that message, it’s no fault of theirs, however, I have to empathize that, you know, we should not be leaving our jurisdictions."
With no sign from the province on banning travel at this time, Backer said that the town should act as if everyone has COVID and where a mask, social distance and do their part to slow the spread.
"Our number one responsibility is the people of Mattawa," he said. "I can ensure you we are working diligently to make sure that we are all continuing to be safe."