Tensions rise as Prince Edward Country struggles to manage booming tourism industry during COVID-19

For Steve Purtelle, summer in Prince Edward County, an island municipality on the north shore of Lake Ontario, is typically bustling with activity.

Purtelle is the owner of The Acoustic Grill, a pub in downtown Picton, Ont. that regularly hosts live music and offers a mellow environment where visitors can enjoy a drink and a burger. He remembers previous summers were packed with out-of-town visitors—the tourists began to arrive in May, and business exploded in July and August.

“Once school is out, we’re turning people away [because the restaurant is full] every day of the week,” he told The Pigeon in an interview.

After COVID-19 caused non-essential services to shut down unexpectedly this past March, several Prince Edward County businesses faced drastic changes.

A survey completed by the Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce between April 9 and May 5 of this year cited that 93 per cent of business owners who responded were impacted by COVID-19. At the time of the survey, 42 per cent of responding businesses were closed—Purtelle’s among them.

Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce presents COVID-19 Business Survey Results.

The Acoustic Grill closed March 16 and remained closed until April 10, when the restaurant began to open for weekend takeaway orders. Though the Ontario government allowed businesses selling food to remain open if orders were takeaway, Purtelle had to make drastic adjustments to his business model to adapt.

“The first month of doing takeout, we didn’t have any employees come back, so my wife and I worked, as well as my son, my daughter, and my daughter’s boyfriend. Our accountant had told us we had to lay everyone off, and we just used our family members for the first month back.”

Purtelle cited financial pressures as being his motivating factor for reopening.

“We had to start doing takeout because all the bills were still coming in,” he said.

An empty bar at The Acoustic Grill. Photo supplied by: The Acoustic Grill

Purtelle is not alone in this struggle. In the same survey by the Chamber of Commerce, 49 per cent of respondents said that after three months in their current economic state, they would be forced to permanently close, ultimately leaving several owners relying on the summer months to determine the overall economic impact of COVID-19 on their businesses.

Due to the pandemic’s initial effect on Prince Edward County businesses, Purtelle expected the worst for sales when phase two of reopening started and restaurant patios were able to open to customers.

Thankfully, once patio business resumed, The Acoustic Grill had daily visitors, allowing the restaurant to be profitable.

For Olivia Main, receptionist for the Lake on the Mountain Inn and bartender at the inn’s adjoining restaurant, the immediate influx of visitors to the county once phase two of reopening came into effect was also unexpected.

“I didn’t think [the county] would be as busy as it was right off the bat,” Main said. “I thought it would be more gradual, but I guess as soon as the restaurants were able to open, the floodgates opened, and it has been nonstop [with tourists] ever since.”

While Main was surprised by the number of visitors that have been flocking to Prince Edward County, she does not think that this summer is busier than previous county summers.

“I feel like [before COVID-19] it was more manageable,” she said. “I don’t think there are more tourists this year, I think that because restaurants […] can’t seat as many people [as usual], everyone is looking for somewhere to go. The lineups are longer, [so] it seems like there’s more people.”

Though the overall congestion caused by social distancing measures makes it appear as though more tourists are visiting, local residents of Prince Edward County have become irritated by the overwhelming presence of visitors to the area.

Both Purtelle and Main cited their own negative experiences with tourists, with several of these interactions occurring when tourists were disrespectful towards service workers.

Purtelle noted the near certainty of having negative experiences with tourists during any season.

“There will always be people that think they like camping and realize they hate it,” Purtelle noted. “When they come out to dinner, sometimes they take it out on servers.”

Main further affirms this, noting that she had recently been yelled at over the phone.

“People can be really demanding over the phone and will demand a really good table [at the restaurant] when we still have to work around [social distancing restrictions],” she said. “It’s the sense of entitlement that’s the most irritating thing for me.”

Despite negative experiences with some visitors, Purtelle and Main agree that several visitors have been polite and respectful of local service workers.

“I do think most people visiting have been really good, but there have been some people that have been so bad that it makes me see all tourists in a bad light,” Main said.

In July, a petition was created addressing Steve Ferguson, the mayor of Prince Edward County, John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, Bay of Quinte MPP Todd Smith, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, calling for the tourism industry in the county to be monitored,and for a limit to be placed on the number of tourists permitted to visit the county at any given time.

The organizer of the petition, Jordan McCormack, said in his campaign description that the summer of 2020 was the worst summer in Prince Edward County for tourism, noting that tourists were continually flooding the county to over-capacity, littering, and not following social distancing guidelines implemented by local residents.

The petition further states that residents feel the mass influx of visitors is ultimately unfair and unsafe to locals who have been following social distancing guidelines, alleging that reopening would only benefit out-of-town guests.

As of Sept. 1, the petition had garnered over 6,000 signatures.

“We are angry that for months now we have all come together as a community to follow health and safety guidelines to keep everyone safe,” the petition reads. “We are still under a global pandemic, and instead of the County [government] following through with what they set out to do earlier this year, which was to protect [against the pandemic], tourists are being encouraged to come to the County.”

The petition further cites numerous disrespectful things locals have been subjected to during the tourist season, including tourists camping in parking lots of local storefronts, defecating on private properties, and not wearing masks in public.

This tension between locals and tourists has extended to target locally owned businesses that cater to visitors. Purtelle claims he has deleted the Facebook app from his phone due to criticism from Prince Edward County residents about local businesses prioritizing tourists over them.

“I couldn’t look at the app anymore with all the locals complaining about tourists,” he said.

Despite the strained relationships between locals and business owners, several Prince Edward County residents agree that the tourism industry is the lifeblood of the county’s economy. If the tourist season was seriously hampered by COVID-19, the impact on the local economy would be disastrous.

“So many businesses, including my own, would be detrimentally affected,” Purtelle said.

McCormack’s petition, too, acknowledges that tourism is necessary for the survival of several local businesses.

“The point of this petition is not trying to encourage an ‘us versus them’ narrative or condemn tourism because we understand that some local businesses would not survive without it,” it says.

“What we are doing is trying to put forth a voice that would enable people to see that us locals are suffering from not being able to enjoy what the County has to offer, due to overcrowding and the lack of respect many tourists have displayed.”

Cassidy McMackon is a philosophy student in her final year at Queen’s University.

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