Despite repeated warnings from public health authorities to stick close to home and avoid travel between regions, officials in western Quebec and eastern Ontario say many are still ignoring the rules.

Pontiac Mayor Joanne Labadie said hikers, skiers and snowshoers from Ottawa and Gatineau continue to explore trails in her area, even with both provinces under lockdown.

“They come in large groups,” Labadie said by phone. “What I see is they’re not wearing masks, they’re not social distancing, they’re coming in multiple cars … and then heading out to the great outdoors.”

What we’re saying is, if you don’t have to travel for essential reasons, please stay home.– Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, EOHU

Ontario and Quebec residents are currently being advised to stay close to home unless it’s essential.

People seeking fresh air and exercise are supposed to find it within their own communities in their family bubbles.

Nevertheless, Labadie said she still sees rows of parked cars near local trailheads, and they don’t all belong to locals.

Labadie is concerned the visitors could be spreading the virus among themselves, thinking they’re safe because they’re outside.

“Certain trails like Luskville Falls, there are areas where it’s almost impossible to social distance,” she said.

Better communication needed

In the area covered by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU), where COVID-19 rates have been on the rise, the region’s medical officer of health is calling for better communication about the risks of travel.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said that could even include billboards near bridges to remind would-be day trippers to stay put.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis is the medical officer of health and CEO of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit. He continues to press residents to avoid travel to protect regions of the province seeing fewer cases of COVID-19. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

“Signage, messaging to discourage people from doing it is, I think, the best way to go,” he said. “We want to keep people as least mobile as possible, because we know that intermixing with people just increases the virus’s chance of spreading.”

While Roumeliotis believes the shutdowns in Ontario and Quebec have helped cut down on interprovincial travel, he still worries about travel within eastern Ontario, such as people from his region taking unnecessary shopping trips to Ottawa.

“What we’re saying is, if you don’t have to travel for essential reasons, please stay home,” Roumeliotis said. “We have the new [coronavirus] variant in Ottawa and we don’t want it to spread, so that’s another reason that we should be extra careful.”

Labadie said she understands the urge to get away, and said she feels for people who live in apartments or condos in dense areas of Ottawa and Gatineau. But for anyone with cabin fever, she has a simple message — be smart, and wear a mask.

“It’s striking the right balance, and I think if everybody does the right thing and practises all the proper protocols, then we should be OK,” she said. “It’s just that what I’m witnessing is that people are not.”

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