The mayor of Wasaga Beach is asking the Ontario government for help in managing crowds of people expected in the town’s provincial park on the Victoria Day long weekend.
Nina Bifolchi says the resort town, northwest of Toronto, doesn’t have the resources to monitor or maintain Wasaga Beach Provincial Park.
The park includes 14 kilometres of sandy beach along the southern end of Georgian Bay and draws big crowds every year on Victoria Day weekend. It is closed right now because of COVID-19. Garbage bins are already overflowing.
“As we gear up for the summer season, we expect an influx of people,” Bifolchi said in an interview with CBC Toronto on Wednesday. “It’s always that first long weekend that people want to go out and go to the beach.”
On March 19, the Ontario government closed all provincial parks to slow the spread of COVID-19, a closure that has been extended until May 31 and covers all recreational activities, including day use. The province has closed access points and public buildings in parks as well.
The mayor says if people come on the long weekend, there will be nothing for them to do.
Bifolchi said the town doesn’t have the resources to help the Ontario Provincial Police enforce the park’s closure and the force, which patrols the town, doesn’t have the “resources to be everywhere” in the town. Already, the town’s bylaw officers are helping police with complaints about non-essential businesses operating and people congregating in municipal parks.
“We need to ensure that proper enforcement is in place,” she said. “It’s not as simple as closing a gate on a property.”
Bifolchi said people who come to Wasaga Beach do not necessarily realize that the beach is actually part of the provincial park. The park itself is divided into eight beach areas, Beach Areas 1 to 6, plus New Wasaga and Allenwood, all of which are accessible by road. It includes 6.8 hectares of parkland with more than 50 kilometres of hiking trails.
“People look at it as a beach,” she said. “They don’t realize it is Ontario parkland. It’s confusing for people.”
In an interview with CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning this week, Bifolchi said: “It’s really intermingled throughout our community. It’s really hard to control who is coming and going on the land.”
In an April 23 letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Bifolchi asked what the plan is for the long weekend.
“We are very fortunate to have Wasaga Beach Provincial Park located within our boundaries. As the weather warms up, we are expecting more people visiting Wasaga Beach regardless of what rules the province has in place,” she wrote.
“We need a solid plan between the Province, Ontario Parks, OPP and the Town to deal with this influx of people.”
Bifolchi has yet to receive a response.
“We want to make sure that there are appropriate resources in place to deal with this situation,” she said.
Ontario Parks staff who work in the provincial park offices have left and the offices are closed. Bifolchi said she would like the park wardens to return at least for the long weekend.
In a statement on Wednesday, Sgt. Jason Folz, spokesperson for the OPP’s Central Region Headquarters, said the OPP and its Huronia West detachment are committed to community safety. The detachment patrols the town of Wasaga Beach and the townships of Springwater and Clearview.
“The Detachment is assessing the staffing needs for enforcement during the Victoria Day Weekend and will deploy officers as necessary to maintain public safety,” Folz said.
“The unique challenges imposed by the [Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act], as well as the closure of provincial parks and ATV trails, are taken into consideration when deploying officers,” he added.
“Further, we recognize the shared responsibility of the municipality, and its leaders are critical to the success of this endeavour.”
If the province doesn’t provide extra resources, Bifolchi said: “Well, we will deal with the situation with the resources we have.”
As for people from out of town thinking of going to the beach on the long weekend, she added: “The reality is, we would love to see them in the future. There’s really nothing for them to do. It’s best for them to stay in their primary communities.
“When we stop moving, so does the virus.”
The Ontario environment ministry, which is responsible for provincial parks, said in a news release on April 25: “We understand this extension may impact many Ontarians’ plans during the month of May. However, the health and well-being of Ontarians is our government’s number one priority. Although we are making progress to stop the spread, the virus has not yet been contained.
“As a result, all but essential service workers must continue to stay at home and practise physical distancing.”