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Jan. 17, 2022 | Monday
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Hirji urges Ontario to consider regional travel restrictions
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Niagara-on-the-Lake is continuing to see thousands of visitors entering town on weekends, despite pleas from public health officials across Ontario for people to stay home and not travel out of their region.

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake recorded 9,163 vehicles entering town during the Easter weekend, and again, Old Town was flooded with visitors.

On Sunday, The Lake Report observed people renting bikes, many walking maskless and gathering in large groups. It didn't look much like we are in the third wave of a pandemic.

Niagara's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said restricting travel to Niagara from other part of Ontario is beyond the scope of regional public health.

"We don't have the ability to do that, I think if we were going to have Ontario provincial travel restrictions, that would have to be something the province would do."

Provincial restrictions on travel are "definitely worth looking at," he said.

The region's mobile data even "a month or so ago" showed a lot of people from outside Niagara coming to the region's open tourist and shopping areas, Hirji said. 

"That's the kind of thing that I'm hoping we don't see" in the coming weeks.

It's no surprise that when cases rise in other regions, Niagara follows suit, he told reporters Tuesday.

"We see cases go up in places like the GTA, we see cases go up in Hamilton, and then they start to go up here in Niagara later and that's probably because cases go up in other regions, people travel here, and the infection starts to spread," Hirji said. 

"So I do think looking at some kind of intraprovincial travel restrictions might make a lot of sense for us here in Niagara, but it would have to be a decision made by the province."

Lord Mayor Betty Disero said the town doesn't have many options to protect residents from visitors who may be bringing the virus into town, and continues to urge people to take their health into their own hands by avoiding town when it's busy.

"The town is limited in terms of what they can do because the rules are set by the province and the region," Disero said.

A year ago, the town exhausted its options by closing washrooms and parking, but it ended up creating additional problems.

"We followed the provincial rules, we closed the washrooms, we tried to get people not to stop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so we removed the parking. And by following the provincial regulations, by closing the washrooms, we then had a different public health issue," Disero told The Lake Report.

"So, we had to say to the province, 'Look, fine us if you like, but we're opening up,' and thank goodness Dr. Hirji thought our position was reasonable and so we opened up the washrooms. And then what we found was every other municipality in the region started opening theirs as well."

The town's data last week from Bell Mobility showed about 75 per cent of people coming to town were coming from within the Niagara region, she said.

"People are encouraged to stay within their own region. So we are a part of Niagara region."

"I think people are so tired and anxiety has set in so much on feeling trapped, isolated, depressed, that they don't care any more about the rules, they just want out," Disero said.

"They just want to get out and get some fresh air and if that means getting in their car, going for a drive and stopping at a place where the views are breathtaking and magnificent, then that's what they're going to do," she said.

People have had it with being "locked up and not locked up and then locked up again" over the past year and many people are saying, " 'I can't live like this,' And they're coming," Disero said.

So, the mayor's message remains; "People are going to come, so we need to know to protect ourselves."

While she said the province should have kept people locked down longer to bring cases down instead of opening and shutting down again, it's easier to come to that conclusion in hindsight.