Some confusion surrounds snowbirds’ return to campgrounds, RV parks

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Canadian snowbirds have been flocking home during the pandemic.

But for many, especially those returning with a recreational vehicle, coming home early means having no place to go.

The situation is confusing, and the rules change constantly, but with Ontario’s April 3 order closing another round of non-essential businesses, there’s been confusion about where exactly snowbirds – some without permanent Canadian homes, others weeks away from their summer accommodations – should go.

“Full-time RVers and snowbirds have to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning to Canada, but many campgrounds are not yet open, and there’s a lack of clarity around the rules for the owners of these facilities,” said Evan Rachkovsky, director of communications for the Canadian Snowbird Association.

The organization representing about 115,000 Canadian snowbirds said snowbirds – Canadians who spend winters in the southern United States or Mexico – usually come home later in the spring. That can leave them without a place to go in the meantime.

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“We have been receiving calls at our office related to people having difficulty finding a place to stay. A lot of campgrounds are not open until May. … It is really adding to the stress,” Rachkovsky said.

While campgrounds and RV parks were officially deemed non-essential recreational facilities last week, there’s an exception – one Rachkovsky said many campground owners don’t know. According to a memo from Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, campgrounds and RV parks are allowed to remain open only for returning snowbirds.

That’s the situation for Mark and Melanie Jaycock, owners of Willow Lake RV and campground in Woodstock. Initially, the Jaycocks had planned to open a bit earlier to accommodate families that could camp in an RV. Since the April 3 non-essential order, they’re only taking snowbirds who are waiting for their usual arrangements, either for a permanent home or their usual campground for the season. That’s been about a dozen so far, including some who have now left.

“These people quarantine themselves in their trailer until they can either go to their own home or to their campground (for the season),” Jaycock said.

Jaycock recounted one family who had park in a hardware store parking lot because they couldn’t find an open campground. Others RVers, especially those who usually camp in Northern Ontario, are at a loss because campgrounds there are still under several feet of snow.

Rachkovsky estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of their 115,000 members are full-time RVers, but they’re hearing from those members that finding a spot to park an RV has become increasingly difficult. There are also RVers who don’t have full-time Canadian homes, he said, so rely on campgrounds.

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Alexandra Anderson, executive director of Camping in Ontario, said many campgrounds aren’t open early because many don’t have water or electricity turned on at this point.

Anderson said about three-quarters of their roughly 420 members are still closed. They’re crossing their fingers for a good summer, and action by governments heading into peak season.

“I’m really hoping all levels of government acknowledge the difference for a seasonal business. They have six months to make a year’s profits, as opposed to full-time businesses,” Anderson said.

To make sure people effectively self-isolate, Jaycock saidmthey’ve been in touch with Southwestern Public Health and have closed public facilities, like the camp shop and washroom. Since so many full-time RVers come in big rigs – some bigger than Toronto condos, Jaycock said – there’s been no issues getting people to stay put.

“They’re used to travelling and being in these units. They’re well appointed,” Jaycock said.

It’s the same at Shiloh Park Campground in Wallaceburg, about 30 minutes northwest of Chatham. Owner Bram Brouwer said they understand RV parks can be open only for permanent residents and snowbirds forced to come home earlier than usual, of which they’ve had about 20.

Brouwer said he believes the reaction to COVID-19 is a bit overblown, but he’s following the rules and won’t resume regular operations until he’s told it’s safe. But Brouwer said he’s also bracing for a slower than normal summer season, even if the pandemic is over.

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“I know a lot of people living paycheque to paycheque, and this is really terrible for them. If they were thinking about doing anything other than working and eating, vacationing I’m sure is over for them,” Brouwer said. “But people are responsive. If things are looking good, they’ll celebrate and go camping.”

According to GoRVing Canada, the non-profit association representing RV campgrounds, manufacturers and dealers, the average campground season is only 157 days.

Right now, Jaycock said they’re not sure what the season will bring – pretty much every reservation between the park’s April 24 planned opening and the May long weekend has already cancelled. The provincially ordered closure is currently in effect until April 18.

“If things get extended (a bit) we’ll be OK, but if it extends into May, June, July, it will be tough for us and many other campgrounds,” Haycock said. “It is new territory for everyone.”

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