Clash with local health unit drains hot tubs at some Ontario resorts

Four resort owners in rural Ontario have been ordered by the local health unit to shut down their hot tubs, even though they’ve been operating for years. They say the rules they've broken are impossible to follow and that the closures threaten the economy of tourism-heavy Haliburton County.

Officials say hot tubs must have emergency landline, showers and spinal board

Stephen Orr, co-owner of Buttermilk Falls Resort in Ontario's cottage country, had to drain all his hot tubs last month after the local health unit said they broke provincial regulations. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Co-owner Stephen Orr was already struggling to get his cottage resort in rural Ontario back afloat after being closed due to the pandemic — when he was dealt another blow.

His local health unit has ordered the resort to shut down all of its hot tubs because they don't comply with provincial rules — rules which he says were disregarded by local officials for decades and which go unenforced in neighbouring jurisdictions.

Orr runs Buttermilk Falls Resort, which includes nine rental cottages and five hot tubs. The hot tubs are on the private decks of each cottage and are only used by guests renting that specific cottage.

But last month the resort was forced to drain the tubs after the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District (HKPR) Health Unit said they weren't in compliance with provincial regulations. The requirements — typical for large public pools with communal hot tubs — include having drowning safety equipment, a landline phone and shower facilities.

"It's kind of crazy," Orr said. "[The tubs] are incredibly safe … why are they putting a whole bunch of additional [safety measures] in that really don't apply?"

CBC Toronto spoke with four resort owners who say they were blindsided after the health unit ordered them to shut down their hot tubs, even though they've been operating as is for several years — some for decades. 

One of the private hot tubs at Buttermilk Falls. The rules cited by the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit seem to have gone unenforced for years, and are disregarded in similar cases in neighbouring jurisdictions. (Angelina King/CBC)

The owners say the regulations are impossible to follow and the closures are not only impacting their bottom line, but will be detrimental to the larger economy of Haliburton County — about 200 kilometres northeast of Toronto. 

"We really want to be a part of the community and help out the tourism part in the community and we feel as though we're not doing that and we're at a disadvantage," said Harsha Manani, co-owner of Lakeview Motel.     

Rules aren't new 

The manager of environmental health at HKPR Health Unit says the provincial regulations have always applied to hot tubs at these resorts, but that the health unit only found out about many of them recently, after an order was issued to one of the properties last fall. 

"We've been finding out about some of these other businesses from competitors pointing fingers at them," said Bernard Mayer. 

Since issuing that first order, the unit has ordered hot tubs closed at two other properties and is investigating four others for failing to comply with pool and public spa rules under the Health Protection and Promotion Act. 

WATCH | Resort owners in hot water: 

Health unit rules drain hot tubs at some Ontario resorts

1 year ago
Duration 2:15
Some resort owners in Ontario’s cottage country say the area’s health unit is enforcing safety rules for their hot tubs that are impossible to follow, driving customers away.

Lakeview Motel appealed its order to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board, arguing that the private-use hot tubs were not public spas, because they were only available to guests staying at four specific units.

The rules have an exemption for properties with five suites or less.

But the review board upheld the order on the grounds there were a total of 14 "dwelling units" at Lakeview Motel.

Mayer says the number of people who use, or have access to, a hot tub isn't the issue. 

"[The regulation] is based on the number of rooms and suites within the property that's available for rent," he said. 

The Tourism Industry Association of Ontario says the HKPR Health Unit is the only one it knows of that is applying the public pools and spas regulation in this way. 

Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit, which regulates another neighbouring, tourism-heavy part of the province's cottage country, says it doesn't enforce the regulation on private spas within rental units that are intended for the sole use of the occupants. 

Rob Berthelot of Sandy Lane Resort says guests have cancelled their reservations upon learning the hot tubs weren't available. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Resorts estimate 25% drop in revenue 

Manani's tubs have remained closed, which she says has led to a 25 per cent drop in revenue. 

"We were absolutely flabbergasted … because the hot tubs were used for a good 20 years prior to our ownership without any issues at all," she said.

Orr says he's lost approximately $1,000 per week issuing discounts to guests who booked a cottage with a hot tub and estimates the resort will lose a quarter of its annual revenue if it can't re-open the hot tubs this fall.

"At that level we probably aren't making our mortgage and at that level we're probably closing the whole resort down," he said.

Other operators like Rob Berthelot, who owns Sandy Lane Resort, have already had guests cancel after they learned the hot tubs are no longer available.

Last month this closure notice was given to Buttermilk Falls. (Submitted by Stephen Orr)

"It's frustrating because it came out of left field," he said. "I've got enough other issues to deal with having lost almost half a million dollars in the last two years in revenue because of COVID." 

Health unit 'sympathizes' 

Mayer says the health unit sympathizes with the resorts and, thus, hasn't issued any fines against them.

"We're trying to work with them where we can," he said. "Typically for any one of these we could issue 12 charges, which could amount up to over $3,000."

The order issued against Buttermilk Falls Resort lists more than 30 infractions, including not having a shower facility, a dedicated emergency landline, a buoyant throwing aid with rope for emergency use, a spinal board and a timing device that requires users to exit the hot tub to reset it.

Adding just the phone lines would be "prohibitively expensive," said Orr, and would force the removal of the hot tubs. 

Even though Oakview Lodge and Marina rents out a single six-bedroom cottage to one group at a time, health inspectors still shut down the indoor hot tub. 

Greg Hebert, co-owner of Oakview Lodge and Marina, hopes resort owners and the local health unit can find a 'common sense' solution. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Co-owner Greg Hebert was told he can remove two beds from the lodge to bring the number of "units" down to less than six, or remove the tub.

"There's got to be, hopefully, some common sense and somewhere in the middle," he said.

The resort owners say they're happy to comply with reasonable regulations and would like to work with the provincial government to amend them, but so far, they haven't gotten anywhere. 

CBC Toronto asked Ontario's Ministry of Health to clarify the intention of the regulations, and whether the province would consider amending them, but the ministry chose not to answer those questions. 

Instead, in a statement, a spokesperson said the ministry couldn't comment on this case because the application of the regulations — and inspections — are the responsibility of local public health units. 

Manani says small, family-run businesses like hers are being left in the lurch.

"What do we do? What can we do?"