'Missing the revenue, missing the work': Alberta vacation spots stare down quiet season start

'If visiting summer cottages, respect the health and safety of small communities by planning your trip without stops for gas or food.'

A recommendation to avoid non essential travel remains in place

The Town of Sylvan Lake closed down its waterfront amenities and asked visitors to stay away last month in keeping with a recommendation to avoid non-essential travel in the province. (Town of Sylvan Lake)

Even if the weather in Alberta is less than tropical, the May long weekend typically sees RVs hitched up, fire pits kindled, cabins opened, and campgrounds start to fill.

The upcoming 2020 Victoria Day will be like no other––and some small communities where Albertans and visitors flock to enjoy the finer months are feeling the economic losses of unrented rooms and empty beaches, while simultaneously banking on the crowds staying away.

Late last month, Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw strongly advised against going to summer homes. But part of the province's relaunch plan announced Thursday includes reopening campgrounds and boat launches

In an emailed statement Friday, Hinshaw continued to recommend limiting non-essential travel, but said the relaunch recognizes the importance of outdoors and recreation to Albertans' well-being.

"If visiting summer cottages, respect the health and safety of small communities by planning your trip without stops for gas or food. When outdoors or in public, take all the necessary precautions to protect your health and the health of those around you," Hinshaw said. 

Whether or not people heed the advice to avoid non-essential travel, popular summer communities need to be ready. 

The volunteer fire department that serves the Mulhurst Bay area on the northeast shore of Pigeon Lake say they are ready to respond to what may come in May. 

"Really, there's not much we can do. If people want to come out here, they're going to come out here," Mulhurst Bay Fire Department Chief Butch Russell said in an interview.

The small department is staffed by 13 volunteers, about half of whom are retirees over 65, Russell said. Many of the other members are area farmers.

Mulhurst Bay Fire Chief Butch Russell (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Russell, a volunteer himself, said the crew has been trained on COVID-19 protocols and has managed to obtain PPE, including N95 masks. The crew has a relatively small service area, and works with other departments in Wetaskiwin County, such as Pigeon Lake South, for back-up. 

Normally, the bay's fire crew responds to about 50 calls a year: medical emergencies, as well as fires, vehicle collisions, and both ice and water rescues. There haven't been any calls since February, but Russell said that could change in the coming weeks if more people flock to the area.

He said around the community, long-term residents have been good at practising physical distancing. But with warmer weather, he's worried about visitors coming to party, people having bonfires or shooting off fireworks, and the risk of grass fires. 

The community relies on the hospital in Wetaskiwin, and Russell said there's not a lot of extra capacity there. 

"We don't really want an influx of people out here if possible," he said.

He's hopeful people obey the request to stay away –and especially discourages anyone who is feeling ill from coming to quarantine in the area.

'Trying to get out in front of it'

Sylvan Lake, a beachfront town about 23 kilometres west of Red Deer, is trying to get ahead of the rush of people who flock to their cabins and secondary residences along its shores.

"If there was a local outbreak of COVID-19, it would overwhelm our system right now," said Ron Lebsack, the town's director of emergency management in an interview in late April. 

Lebsack said Sylvan Lake didn't have any confirmed COVID-19 cases in town, and that they were hoping to keep it that way. The town put out a statement last month asking people who own second homes in the community to stay put wherever they've spent the winter. 

"We're just trying to get out in front of it right now," he said, adding that while Sylvan Lake doesn't have authority to prevent people from coming, the town is hopeful that cottage owners and seasonal residents will respect the request because of the small community's limitations.

The town has an ambulatory centre, but no hospital of its own, and while stores are keeping up with demand for supplies by its year-round population, that ability to cope could unravel with a sudden population boom. 

With five separate summer villages around the lake that rely on the town as a service hub, it's hard to know how many seasonal residents arrive annually, but Lebsack estimates the population of the town itself, which had just a population of just under 15,000 in the 2016 census, typically grows by more than 2,000 residents in the summer. 

That doesn't include people who arrive for day trips or shorter stays, which is usually around 800,000 or 900,000 annually, Lebsack said.

"On a hot summer day we can see tens of thousands of additional visitors into Sylvan Lake," he said. 

The town's beach and parks are often packed on warm days, but to help fend off would-be visitors, the town has closed all of its waterfront amenities, including bathrooms, picnic areas, and parking lots. 

Though the message is to stay away for the time being, Lebsack said the economic losses the town will experience through the drop in tourism are a "huge concern."

'Hopefully it's sooner than later'

That concern is also being felt in the Town of Jasper where Stephen Eldred has watched months worth of bookings for his AirBNB suite vanish. 

On Thursday, the town put out a statement asking visitors to avoid trips to the park until at least June 1. Eldred and his family started renting out a suite in their home back in October, and had pretty steady bookings that were ramping up to a fully booked summer. 

AirBNB host Julie Sagan says the slew of spring and summer cancellations for her rental suite in Jasper, Alta. has been a financial hit. (Julie Sagan. )

Though some rentals in town are still being let by oil and gas workers, Eldred says his suite isn't really suitable for any long-term stays. And though the cancellations sting, he said he's not comfortable with having guests for the time being. 

"Even just people coming up from Edmonton, because of the travel restrictions, you know you're not supposed to travel if it isn't essential, so it feels a little weird to have people in our home under those circumstances," he said. "And people can see whether you have guests or not–– they're parked in your driveway, and some people might kind of frown upon that in the community."

Julie Sagan, another Jasper AirBNB host, had an Edmonton couple try to rent her suite out in April, but she turned them down. 

Like Eldred, Sagan's property is seeing cancellations through the spring and into summer. She's also been laid off from her two other jobs in the tourism industry: work in a local restaurant and on the Rocky Mountaineer passenger train. Sagan said she loves to work, and she misses both the income and the energy that comes with tourism during the high season.

"I can't wait for everybody to be able to come and visit. We're missing the revenue, missing the work," she said. "Hopefully it's sooner than later."