ATV trails will reopen despite premier calling decision 'premature'
QuadNB received blessing from cabinet minister to reopen trails earlier this week
The provincial association that manages thousands of kilometres of trails for all-terrain vehicles says the trails will reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic until the New Brunswick government delivers an official directive.
Roger Daigle, president of QuadNB, said Friday afternoon he wants to see "specific guidelines" on how to proceed during the state of emergency after receiving mixed signals from the government this week.
In a memo to his 24,000 members issued Thursday, Daigle announced he was reversing his April 9 decision to close the network of trails across the province. That original order had raised the ire of riders itching to get out of the house. The memo included a quote from Mike Holland, the minister of natural resources and energy development, condoning the move while urging caution to follow physical distancing precautions.
Premier Blaine Higgs struck a different tone Friday during the daily briefing, expressing how he was "disappointed" by the decision and felt it was "premature."
"I know the pressures and I know what they're facing, certainly the club presidents, I know the ATV riders themselves, I know they want to get back to normal, and I'm just saying let's not lose what we have because the whole province could be affected by it," Higgs said.
Public Health announced no new cases of COVID-19 for the second consecutive day, leaving the cumulative total at 117 — 83 of whom have recovered. Provincial officials say it's critical to maintain the emergency measures in place for at least another two weeks to reduce the chance of a significant resurgence.
Many outdoor recreational activities have been delayed or banned or must adhere to strict physical distancing restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus, and the spotlight was thrust on ATV riders before the Easter holiday weekend when the premier cautioned against gathering in the woods for rumoured ATV rallies .
Daigle said the rallies were not being held by QuadNB clubs.
However, he said he had to act fast and clear the air, but couldn't reach his board members and decided to act unilaterally.
That led to his decision to call on the 56 member clubs to close the roughly 6,000 kilometres of managed trails. He thought it would be fine since many trails are already closed for the spring thaw.
The directive, issued the day before Good Friday, was not well received, he said.
On Wednesday, Daigle said he received a call from Holland asking about the situation. The two decided that, with the proper warnings about following safety measures, the trails could reopen but the shelters would remain closed.
"We feel that the ATV community understands the significance of what we are dealing with here in NB with the current Covid-19 crisis," Holland is quoted as saying in Thursday's QuadNB memo.
"We also feel confident that the province–wide social conduct rules can and will be followed when the federation resumes activity on the trails."
QuadNB was previously called the New Brunswick All-Terrain Vehicle Federation.
Higgs suggested Friday his cabinet minister was not on the same page.
"There does appear to be some discrepancy there. I appreciate that," he said, adding Holland was under pressure from riders.
"The messaging got a little offside here and those things happen. I just don't want anyone to read any more into that than a bit of a different communication."
CBC News has requested comment from Holland, but he has yet to respond.
The premier said the province does not sanction reopening the trails, but there was no explicit order to do otherwise. Daigle said until he receives something "in writing", the trails will be open.
What's the risk?
Many riders, including Daigle, are skeptical about the risk of spreading or catching the virus on an ATV in the woods. He trusts his members will follow health guidelines and said they're already wearing protective gear that covers their face and hands.
He declined to comment on why other outdoor activities enjoyed by many — the delayed fishing and hunting seasons, for instance, or heading to the cottage — must comply with provincial guidelines, saying it was not his jurisdiction. Higgs advised cottage-goers to stay home during the lockdown.
The premier said he isn't naive to the fact individuals are trekking into the woods, but his concern lies with signalling that it's business as usual. "That's not the situation," he said.
Higgs asked the association and all riders to "recognize that we cannot have large groups, we cannot have five to 10 people, two or more people, that are travelling and congregating no matter where they do it in the woods because that could bring the virus back to their respective homes."
Daigle said it's possible the trails could close again if the rules aren't followed.
"They got the message. If they continue grouping with one another and not respecting the distancing … and gathering in shelters," he said, "they know these trails will be closed again."