“People are out water-skiing, they’re planning tennis tournaments. We’re concerned.” The owner of a Muskoka marina on how he’s bracing for the long weekend

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“People are out water-skiing, they’re planning tennis tournaments. We’re concerned.” The owner of a Muskoka marina on how he’s bracing for the long weekend

Ben Hatherley says customers had their lawyers contact him and claim he couldn’t legally withhold their boats. “I guess you could say there were some swear words involved”

Ben Hatherley has been at Gordon Bay Marine since birth—his father founded the business 60 years ago, and he took over last year. The marina is located at the north end of Lake Joseph and services the Muskokas, Haliburton and Georgian Bay. With the long weekend ahead, he’s got a lot on his mind.

Back in March, the provincial government placed major limitations on how marinas could operate as a way of keeping cottage owners from heading north. What was that like for you?
I was away with my family for March break at the time. We definitely had an awareness of the coronavirus—we were worried about the cancellation of trade shows and the like, but we had no idea of what was coming. We are usually around 40 employees at that time of year, but we had to scale back to about five people working and sent everyone else home. I was able to keep everyone on through the government funding program, which was a big relief. Going into the long weekend, we’re usually at about 100 staff. Right now we’re at about 80.

Eighty employees at one marina? That seems like a lot.
We’re definitely one of the larger ones. We service about a thousand boats at the marina and another thousand at cottages out on the lake. A lot of that had to stop this spring, but we managed to keep somewhat busy because we work with a lot of essential workers: the OPP, Ontario Hydro, Bell Canada and a lot of contractors who had open permits.

You were also allowed to put boats in the water for year-round residents who had water-only-access properties, but not for seasonal cottagers. Is that accurate?
It is. But that is basically nobody up here. Up here, it’s people who live in the city and have properties on islands. And we were the ones standing in their way of getting there because we weren’t allowed to let them have their boats.

Sounds awkward.
It was very awkward—for me and for my staff, and for the cottagers, too. We love our cottagers. They are what drives our economy up here, and the vast majority of them have been great. At the same time, my staff were extremely worried about contracting the disease or being fined—for individuals, it was up to $10,000. For businesses, it was $100,000. We had people whose lawyers contacted us; we had some customers who are lawyers who were saying that we can’t legally withhold their product. And my understanding is that’s correct. So in the time of pandemic, what is the law? What your lawyer says or what the premier says? The fact that it was a bit of a grey area definitely added to the stress.

No doubt you heard some choice vocabulary.
I guess you could say there were some swear words involved. Not so much directed at us, but at what’s going on. I heard a lot of elaborate stories from people to explain why their cottage was now their primary residence: they just got a divorce, they were renting their city place out, they had a change of address. My staff had cottagers try to bribe them with offers to use their boats, their cottages, free Leafs tickets. Of course we didn’t accept. Suffice to say that people have been desperate to get to their cottages.

I guess seasonal islanders feel like they have gotten the short end of the stick.
I think so. Especially since everybody who has a land-entry cottage has been here since March. There are actually some island cottage owners who went over back when the lake was still frozen. Some people were canoeing to the grocery store. We actually gave those people their boats because canoeing in those temperatures is not safe. The last thing I want to do is lift a body out of the water.  

How are you operating differently from how you would normally be at this time of year
We’re doing everything we can to ensure safety. We’re lucky that we’re big, so we have a lot of different buildings and can spread our employees out. We currently have two staffers to a building and each building has its own Port-o-Potty. That way if someone gets sick we don’t have to shut down the entire business. That’s good, but it means everything is a lot slower.

Presumably you’ve taken a financial hit.
We’re losing money hand over fist. To qualify for the government funding you had to have lost 30 per cent of your income. Let’s just say we hit that target with no problem.

Last week the province announced that marinas were allowed to start preparing to reopen, but not open. What does that mean, exactly?
We were allowed to get the boats ready, put them in the water and tie them to the dock, but we weren’t allowed to hand the boats over to owners. That was tough. Our parking lot is right next to the docks. We definitely had people coming up and getting into their boats and driving off. I think maybe they just heard the premier say the part about “boats in the water” and didn’t listen to anything else. My staff tried to enforce the rules, but what are we supposed to do? Thankfully, the rules have changed again going into the long weekend and we are allowed to give people their boats—as long as they are using them to travel and not for recreational purposes.

 

How are you supposed to make that determination?
Well exactly. We talked to our township to ask how we’re supposed to police this and they basically said we can’t. How are we supposed to know who’s boating to their cottage and who’s out there just having fun?

I guess if there were a water skier on the back. Are you anticipating any of that kind of activity?
Oh, we’ve already seen a lot of that—people out water-skiing and posting it on Instagram. We’ve heard about people planning parties, tennis tournaments… 

Sounds like long-weekend business as usual. Is that what you’re expecting?
Well, the water won’t be as busy because a lot of the boats still aren’t in the water. I think you’re going to see a lot of people in town—at the grocery store and that kind of thing. Since mid-March, the grocery store parking lot has been full every weekend. You can tell the difference between cars from up here and cars belonging to seasonal residents.

Would you say the Covid-19 crisis has led to a lot of tension between seasonal and permanent residents?
Oh definitely. Which is really too bad because both groups depend on each other. I know of one guy who took the frame off his licence plate so you couldn’t tell he was from Toronto. That was after another car with city plates had a rock thrown through the window. I know people are stressed and upset, but that just isn’t right. On the other hand, you see people coming up from the city and acting like they’ve entered some kind of safe zone and everything is the same as normal, and that’s hard too. One analogy I heard the other day is you know how Canadians are asked, “Should we be opening our borders to Americans?” and the answer is no, no. That’s how a lot of rural Ontario feels about people coming in from Toronto.

Are you concerned about spread?
We are absolutely concerned. I truly don’t want to keep anyone from their cottage, but we have to be safe. So far we have been really lucky compared to other areas. Look at what’s happening in Bobcaygeon, where there was a deadly outbreak at a seniors’ residence. I wonder if that marina will even open. We all want summer to start; I just hope everyone can have some perspective.