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Jun. 18, 2021 | Friday
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Ford government criticized for outdoor restrictions as thousands visit NOTL on weekend
A mob of tourists was elbow-to-elbow on Queen Street during the weekend, despite an ongoing stay-at-home order in place to protect public safety. (Richard Harley)

Data shows over 100,000 visitors to NOTL on weekend as COVID fatigue wears on residents and businesses

Mobile phone data shows over 100,000 people entered Niagara-on-the-Lake last weekend as residents and visitors grow tired of indoor and outdoor restrictions.

On the heels of the provincial government extending the latest stay-at-home order to June 2, downtown NOTL was packed.

During the town's COVID update on Monday, chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie revealed the startling statistic.

“The data we have for this weekend is that we saw approximately 116,000 devices enter (Niagara-on-the-Lake),” Cluckie told council – and 63,000 of those devices were detected in Old Town.

That represents a 21,000 person increase from the week before and 31,000 more than two weeks prior.

Almost half, 49 per cent, of visitors were from the Niagara Region while visitors from the Greater Toronto Area increased by 20 per cent, making up 35 per cent of visitors over the weekend.

“It’s frustrating to me that the province has a stay-at-home order and the town has no mechanism other than to tell people on their cellphones or remind them with signs that we’re in a stay-at-home order and, you know, wear a mask,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero said.

“What we’re doing is trying to keep the people of Niagara safe.”

While some may wonder why such a drastic increase is taking place while a stay-at-home order is in effect, residents and visitors to NOTL say they have grown frustrated with the indoor and outdoor limitations placed by the government.

“We can’t do anything outside,” NOTL resident Glenn Young said.

“You can’t keep people locked up anymore,” added his wife Debbie. “People are at their breaking point.”

The Youngs are in favour of the extended lockdown but found the increased outdoor restrictions too much.

They weren’t alone in that sentiment.

Roberto Pena, a resident of Thorold, was down in Centennial Park in Virgil with his family for a walk. He supports the lockdown but was frustrated with the limited access his children have to outdoor exercise.

“It’s the extracurricular activities, right? I want my son to start playing soccer and meeting new kids. It’s hard to do that with this lockdown,” Pena said.

“This park is beautiful. It’s a shame they have it all closed down.”

The soccer and basketball nets are just a few of the park amenities that are covered so people don't use them.

“It’s all about health and safety, and we support that," said Glenn Young. "But the way this has been managed. We shouldn’t be here right now. We’re regressing.” 

Canadians don’t need to look far to see that the situation at home could be better. Our neighbours south of the border have been a focal point of comparison throughout the entire pandemic.

One year on, the comparison has turned from a strange course of comfort to a frustrating realization.

“Think about how bad the U.S. was last year. Look at them now. They’re the envy of the world,” said Debbie Young.

“They’re having 50,000 people at baseball games. They’re hosting concerts. It’s just so foreign to us,” her husband added.

It isn’t just COVID fatigue that has driven people to the streets in increasing numbers. Some people just don’t take the pandemic seriously anymore.

“They make such a big deal about cases. But, you know, I walk into a hospital and I just don’t see it. Where are all the sick people?” said Grace Vanderbild, a resident of Port Colborne who was visiting Old Town with her husband.

Hospital and health officials dispute such assertions, noting their case numbers – and the fact that patient floors and ICUs where people are being treated are not accessible to the public.

In tough times people often look for someone to blame and the spectre of the COVID boogeyman is in the eye of the beholder.

“I gotta say, I love (Premier) Doug Ford. He’s calling out Trudeau and Trudeau can’t handle it,” Vanderbild said.

Other residents saw the boogeyman in another guise.

“We have one more year of Ford and then we’re done!” NOTL resident Jim Pagano exclaimed.

Regardless of where people place their frustrations the overall drag of the lockdown is apparent.

Jessica Znaczko, a registered nurse from Welland, who was visiting NOTL, was supportive of the lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

But she said people need to be able to get outside so long as they follow health and safety measures.

“If you’re physically distancing, I don’t see a problem with it,” Znaczko said regarding the increase in visitors to NOTL.

“At my work we make sure we’re eating lunch six feet apart and wearing our masks. Getting outside? Not worried about it.”

People are also feeling the pain of businesses and complaining that the increased restrictions are hypocritical.

“I can go and buy wine at the LCBO, but I can’t sit on a patio and support a local business?” said Glenn Young.

“Why do you think that is? It’s because the LCBO makes a ton of money for the government.”

Some business owners are taking hope from seeing the increased number of visitors to NOTL.

“We need the buses, we need the tourists, we need the bridges open. We really need the tourists,” said John Koldenhof, owner of Maple Leaf Fudge on Queen Street.

That sentiment was echoed by Mahmoud Sono, who has owned Sono’s Café in Virgil for over 20 years.

“This lockdown, everybody stays home, nobody wants to spend money. It’s very bad,” he said.

“Our town lives on the people from out of town. We are dying here. I don’t know how much longer we can survive.”

Sono said that his restaurant is receiving five to 10 per cent of its former business. Local support only makes up 20 per cent of his usual revenue and even that is down.

“Locals were supporting us the first lockdown. Not anymore. Everyone has given up,” he said.

Disero was sympathetic to the plight of business owners but said there’s not much the town can do while we are in a provincial lockdown.

“What we keep doing for businesses is keep asking the province to send money for them,” said Disero.

“You’ve locked these people down, through no fault of their own. Send some assistance to help them get through it this time.”

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