An alarming number of people are still visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake, despite the town's efforts to discourage them.
Within an hour Saturday afternoon, The Lake Report surveyed 34 groups of people walking along Queen Street and found just six groups (20 per cent) from Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The others came from places like Toronto (9), Hamilton and Mississauga (7), Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland (6), Burlington and Oakville (3), and others (3). Two groups refused to answer.
The visitors offered a variety of explanations: Supporting local wineries, the weather is too beautiful, didn’t see the signs warning people to stay home, did see the signs but think it’s safe to be outside at a distance.
One person also stated they think COVID-19 is a hoax meant to destroy the global economy and that he believes the virus was genetically engineered. He didn’t clearly say who he thinks is responsible.
Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Leslie Hoadley and her son Sawyer were out doing a scavenger hunt while we were interviewing and tallying. They were forced to walk on the side of the road instead of the sidewalks to avoid groups of people they said they suspected were not from town.
“It makes me feel discouraged that people are ignoring when we’re just politely asking you to stay home. I’m not coming to their community,” said Leslie.
She said it’s frustrating to see people pulled over on the side of the Niagara Parkway reading books in a lawn chair and she wonders why people can’t do that in their own neighbourhoods.
“I am shocked at how many people are walking around,” she said. “Like yes, we’re local, we’re looking for something to do. You know what, this is my town, I should be allowed walk down my road.”
While on the street The Lake Report came across the town's interim CAO Sheldon Randall, who said it’s alarming to see so many people ignoring orders to stay home and to avoid non-essential travel.
“It’s a gong show out there,” Randall said.
“I am surprised,” he said. “I knew people would be coming to NOTL but I didn’t think this many.”
He’s hoping the signs are working on some people. “If they weren’t there, how many people would we have?”
Randall noted said though there is no provincial rule saying people can’t drive from community to community, people should stay home.
“We just can’t accommodate the people that are here now. There’s no washrooms, there’s no place to get a drink. The last thing we need is them going into Valu-mart and causing problems for the businesses that are considered essential. So it’s troubling, for sure.”
He said Lord Mayor Betty Disero is reaching out to Premier Doug Ford to see if he will make an announcement to tell people not to travel to small communities.
“If NOTL is having this problem, I’m sure there’s other communities in Ontario that are having the same problem,” Randall said.
Randall said the town on Saturday signed a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada so the town can enforce provincial orders on the federal agency's property as well.
“We’re noticing that along John Street people are just moving the barricades out of the way and parking anyway, so we’re going to try to do what we can do over in those locations. Again, just to deter people. We want you, just not now.”
NOTL couple Brian and Anna Stemmler and their dog Abe were heading to the bank, walking on the road to avoid the flocks of tourists. They said things were so busy that when a car stopped to let them cross the road, people on motorcycles behind the car started swearing and yelling at them and the person driving the car.
Another NOTL couple said they’re concerned things are only going to get worse as the weather starts to get nicer.
Toronto couple John and Ruth Hannigan said they were in town to pick up wine from Jackson-Triggs winery.
“We came down to pick up a dozen bottles of wine, curbside pickup. They put it in your trunk, so I don’t think there’s much danger of contact,” John Hannigan said.
“Since we were down here, we came down, parked and have been walking up and down the main street. When it comes down to it, yeah, there’s a sprinkling of people and it’s nice to see, but people are not congregating or anything like that.”
The couple are regular visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake and had tuned in to the Shaw’s “That’s Shawbiz” online show on Wednesday.
They both said back home in Toronto the streets are mostly empty. They been staying home most of the time, working from home, like everybody else, and said it was the first time they’ve been to NOTL since the beginning of the pandemic.
Both of them said they saw the signs warning people not to come into town, but they weren’t worried about walking around.
“Outdoors as long you keep your distance and the wind’s blowing and that type of thing, I think it’s relatively low risk,” John said.
“It’s not like we’re descending and sticking around for any length of time. And it’s a beautiful day,” Ruth added.
Another couple, Allan and Maryanne, from Burlington, (they wouldn’t provide their last names) said the signs were “quite evident,” but also ignored them and took a walk.
“We see it as our exercise, like we’re coming out for a walk, an urban walk. We’re not going to go where we’re told not to go. We’re not going to try to get on the swings or anything. We’re just going to walk on, keep our distance and just go for a walk,” Maryanne said.
She did admit they know they shouldn’t be going out for a walk in another municipality.
The Stemmlers noticed the crowds.
“I would prefer if people would stay home,” Anna Stemmler said. “Because we are just coming here to the store, the bank, the post office, and we have to walk on the road.”
A Toronto couple, who wouldn't give their names, said they found it weird that the signs said free parking if the town wants people to stay home.
“What I found super weird is if they want people to stay home, why is there free parking? On the parking meter it says free parking #stayhome,” he said.
Another couple said they missed the signs.
“We’re just here for the day, though. We just drove in this morning just to kind of get out of (home),” they said.
When asked how they can justify walking around another town, they said they’re keeping their distance.
“We are following the six-feet protocol of staying away from other people. I suppose that’s kind of our justification,” said one of them.
In other areas of NOTL, parking lots were full of cars with people not seeming to know or care that there’s a global pandemic.
One couple, Deb and Carm (they wouldn’t provide last names) said they are from Niagara Falls.
“I know we’re not supposed to be doing what we’re doing, but there’s also sanity,” said Deb.
“And we’re all losing our minds a little bit. So we’re social distancing, we’re not with anyone else, just the two of us that live together, and what are we hurting?”
Carm said he works for a municipality, but wouldn’t say which one.
Both said they hadn’t seen the signs, neither the ones the town put up last week at town entranceways, nor the one at Simcoe Park saying the park is closed.
“We saw the cars, and it was like, alright we can pull in here,” Carm said.
The two were parked along the Niagara Parkway, less than 200 metres from one of the town’s newly installed signs warning tourists to stay home.