Lakeside communities across central Alberta are rolling up their welcome mats and telling cottage owners and recreational users to stay home this long weekend.
“Please don’t flock to Buffalo Lake during COVID-19,” is the direct message being sent this week by the Stettler Regional Emergency Management Agency.
The agency that represents the county, town, hamlets and summer villages is echoing the directive of Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw urges Albertans to remain in their primary residences this Easter long weekend, as well as spring break, to reduce the chance of viral transmissions.
So far, there’s only one case of the novel coronavirus in the Buffalo Lake area, and residents of the Settler region want to keep it that way, said Niki Thorsteinsson, public information officer for the agency.
Besides an influx of people creating a heightened health risk for rural residents, there’s also concern about more COVID-19 cases straining limited local hospital and emergency resources in the area, including the region’s two ambulances, said Thorsteinsson.
The Stettler region serves about 10,000 to 15,000 full-time residents, but that number could grow by up to 10,000 more if all the cottage owners came to the lake, as well as the campers, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and ATV users, she said.
In the midst of a pandemic, even an out-of-control campfire is not needed, she said.
“The safest thing is for people to stay home.”
In Lacombe County, many area campgrounds remain closed for the season — which is good, because camping puts more people out of easy reach of ambulances and hospitals, said the county’s emergency management director, Drayton Bussiere.
“Medical attention is not as accessible when people are out in remote areas,” he added.
Lacombe County, which contains parts of Sylvan and Gull lakes, is also following Hinshaw’s directive by asking recreational users to stay at home this long weekend — and so is the Town of Sylvan Lake.
“It hurts us to say that,” conceded Joanne Gaudet, communications officer for the town.
Usually, the resort community welcomes visitors, but these are not normal times, added Gaudet, who noted social distancing would be impossible if dozens of people were out walking on the lakeside promenade.
She hopes cool weather and the thawing lake (ice fishing season is over and snowmobilers are being warned to stay off the ice) will deter a lot of recreational visits this weekend.
As a further measure, the town has closed all public washrooms and picnic shelters — and is also contemplating cordoning off access to public parking lots later this month when warmer weather hits.
Gaudet believes it’s possible for central Albertans to get fresh air without congregating in popular tourist spots.
Once the COVID-19 danger dwindles — hopefully by this summer — visitors will be welcomed back to Sylvan Lake, she stressed.
Meanwhile, vehicle access and public washrooms at Alberta’s provincial and national parks remain temporarily closed to visitors.