Some returning snowbirds are finding they have no place to land in Ontario
Early return because of coronavirus fears leave hundreds of RVers stranded
Sharon Meade and her husband Gerry De Abreu thought they were doing the right thing when they packed up their recreational vehicle and began the journey from Arizona back to their home base in the GTA.
The snowbirds were heeding the federal government's call for Canadians to return home from the U.S. and isolate themselves, in the midst of the COVID-19 emergency.
But as they neared the border last week, one problem became increasingly clear: They had nowhere to go.
The couple's Scarborough condo is currently occupied by Meade's elderly mother. Under normal circumstances, they return to the GTA much later in the year, and stay at private campgrounds, which — she has now discovered — don't normally operate this early in the year.
And Meade is not alone. Alexandra Anderson, executive director of Camping in Ontario, a trade group that represents private campgrounds, said her group has received word that "hundreds, possibly thousands" of stranded RVers who have no brick-and-mortar residences have been calling campgrounds all around the province, looking for vacancies.
"I called RV parks in Toronto, in Hamilton; I called an RV park in Kitchener." Meade said last week. "Either they're not open or they're open and they're already full."
Part of the problem is that the vast majority of the province's 420 or so private campgrounds are prohibited by municipal statute from opening the season until May, according to Anderson.
And the few that do operate year round have not been listed as essential services by the province, so it's unclear whether they'd be allowed to take in new travellers now.
Anderson said her organization has been in contact with the provincial government, and hopes to get more clarification on whether her campgrounds should be added to the list of essential services.
A spokesperson for the ministry of economic development wouldn't agree to an interview with CBC Toronto, but said in a statement: "We know this all moved very quickly but given the gravity of the situation and how quickly things are changing, the government had to take action.
"For people that are looking for temporary lodging, item number 12 on the list exempts hotels, motels, shared rental units and similar facilities, including student residences."
Provincial parks — another potential refuge for people like Meade and her family — are closed until April 30 at the earliest, the statement reads.
But even if private campgrounds are eventually designated essential services and allowed to open, Anderson says she is not certain that they will.
"We're not unsympathetic," she said. "But at the same time we have to protect our local communities.
"For them to open their arms to a snowbird, are they putting their own family at risk?"
Meade said she's been surprised by the backlash she and her fellow RVing snowbirds have received online.
"I'm not going to lie, it's brutal," she said. "My anxiety is off the charts.
'It was awful'
"The mandatory isolation order, and the parks not being open is terrifying. People sound really horrible. I was almost in tears reading people's responses. they think that we're being really irresponsible because we're coming home and we need to go shopping. I have a refrigerator that is eight cubic feet. So it is not going to hold two weeks worth of food," Meade said.
"People would be very happy if we froze to death and starved to death, or both. It was awful."
In the end, Meade and De Abreu got lucky: Two days before they crossed the border back into Ontario late last week, they found a campground in Milton that did agree to take them in.
"The last week has been a bit of a blur," she said. "Each kilometre we got closer to Canada became a bit more terrifying.
"We look forward to sleeping for probably three or four days."