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Can you still rent a cottage this summer during the pandemic? It depends|BCI CANADA

With summer camps and sports leagues cancelled, travel restricted and the warm weather finally here, many families are opting for time away at a rented cottage this summer.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is making that tricky, partly due to provincial rules that people in the cottage industry say are unclear, and advice by some local health authorities that seems to run counter to those rules, depending on how they're being interpreted. 

Under Ontario's emergency order, in effect until at least June 30, short-term rentals of private cottages are prohibited.

The province says short-term rentals — defined as 28 days or less —  booked after April 4 may only be provided to those in need of housing, but hotels, motels and student residences can still operate. 

CBC News asked the province whether rentals of cottages lasting more than 28 days are allowed, but it did not provide a clear answer.

And there's also some confusion about that April 4 date. Can you still head to a rented cottage on, say, June 6 if you booked it before April 4? Or does the rule prohibit not only booking, but occupying any cottage after that date? 

Craig White, the co-owner of CottageLINK Rental Management Company, says he's had a couple of clients challenge him on that question after he's cancelled bookings.

"That's a little ambiguous in itself," said White, whose company connects renters with private properties.

"In the cottage industry, booking can refer to the physical act of taking the reservation, but it can also refer to the period of occupancy. That particular point wasn't necessarily clarified by the government."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing didn't clarify the province's rules when asked by CBC Toronto.

White is still taking bookings, hoping the emergency order is lifted this summer. If not, all cottage owners he works with have agreed to refund renters' money. 

While many private cottage owners are following the province's rules, some are still renting their properties, which is evident on various websites and online groups.

"That created a lot of angst in the community," said Carol Moffatt, mayor of the Algonquin Highlands, a township in cottage country about 270 kilometres northeast of Toronto. 

Resorts given go-ahead by local public health unit

Some cottage resorts are operating in the Simcoe and Muskoka regions, as well as Prince Edward, Hastings and Renfrew counties. Some are also open in the Peterborough area, as well as Frontenac and Lennox counties, according to a post on the Haliburton County website.

Algonquin Highlands and Haliburton County have now told cottage resorts they can open after the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit gave them the go-ahead  — as long as health protocols are followed — as they're now considered a hotel or motel, rather than a short-term rental.

Groups lobbied for the move so resorts with housekeeping cottages — self-contained, fully-equipped cabins — could be put on "an even playing field," Moffat said.

"Having people come to the community and spend money and be here is critical for our communities to survive," she said.

Buttermilk Falls Resort in Algonquin Highlands opened for the season on June 1 with strict protocols, which include a virtual check-in, visitors bringing their own bedding and sanitizing water equipment after use.

The resort has also installed more fire pits to ensure physical distancing and is closing shared facilities, including the playground and water trampoline.

Owner Dale Rider says she's grateful to be able to open now, but is concerned other resorts might have to close if business doesn't pick up this season.

"The vast majority of us are not sold out," she said. "We're probably looking at [a loss of business] anywhere from 20 to 80 per cent for some." 

Beaverland Camp in Marten River is still closed after being booked solid through the busy summer months. Owner Lori Mackellar is seeking answers on whether she can offer summer-long stays, rather than short-term rentals.

The ministry wasn't able to provide clarity to CBC Toronto on whether long-term rentals are allowed, either.

Mackellar, who owns the resort with her husband, says the pandemic is forcing them to push back their retirement by a few years. She's afraid if she can't open this year, there may not be a next year.

"If not, I don't know what we're going to do. We put our life savings here." 

Cottages in high demand

Kim Calleja says she's spent about 10 hours a week since the end of March looking to rent a private cottage for her blended family of six, plus a puppy, but isn't having any luck.

"It's been very very challenging," she said, even after increasing her budget.   

She says many cottage owners are reluctant to take bookings while the emergency order is still in place.  

White says he saw a huge uptick in people looking to rent after travel was restricted in March. Business slowed down after that, but it's since become busy again in the last week.

He attributes that to a combination of warm weather, the number of new COVID-19 cases trending down, camps being cancelled and schools being closed since March.

"All those things really are creating a bit of a perfect storm for the cottage rental environment," he said.

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