Accommodation businesses joining forces to address COVID lockdown impacts in Mattawa

·4 min read

Some of Mattawa’s accommodation business owners are putting their heads together to start fixing the damage caused by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions this winter.

Discrepancies in the provincial support grants and who could operate – made worse by conflicts over the snowmobile trail closure – are on the agenda for a meeting of minds Monday.

News today that the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit is moving out of the grey zone and into a reopening stage won’t erase the ground lost in market and reputation.

Among the frustrated owners are Jenn Demille of Nature’s Harmony Eco-Lodge and Claire Ortiz of the Mattawa Adventure Camp, both of whom were denied provincial support despite not being able to host overnight guests.

“It’s all ridiculous,” Demille said, referring to how their business was denied funding support twice due to technicalities. If it wasn’t for being able to offer day-time activity passes and run their tubing park “we’d be sunk by now, we just kept our heads above water.”

She said the 2021 Ontario Small Business Support Grant was designed for those who impacted by restrictions imposed by the provincial lockdown in mid-January. The Health Unit deemed them to be a provider of cottages and cabins, so they couldn’t host overnight guests. But the grant program denied their application because they were considered a renter of lodges, which were able to accept guests, as were motels and hotels.

“We have escalated this discrepancy to the highest level possible and it is currently with the Federal Review Board,” Demille said. “And we can't get any further explanation other than the fact that we shouldn't be affected by the order.

“We have spoken with someone from the Premier Line and the Cabinet Office - everyone agreed that there is 'grey' in the legislation and that there is not a clear black and white answer,” she explained.

“The issue is in the interpretation of the legislation – are we a "lodge" or are we a provider of cabin/cottage rentals. Since we are a multifaceted facility, the grant body considers us a "lodge" and therefore denies us any relief.”

Last summer, Demille said she and her husband Tzach were denied funding support because they are not incorporated and could only apply under one name despite being partners, reducing the formula result.

Ortiz and Wilm Smulders also couldn’t have overnight guests and were denied funding support, but they didn’t bother with the appeals process. Their frustration focuses on the prejudicial decision to allow motels, hotels, and lodges to take guests when they could not despite everyone following the same protocols for safety.

“It’s not really fair,” Ortiz said, noting the discrepancy was all the more frustrating when the snowmobile trails reopened recently. Some of their former guests had to stay at a nearby motel and questioned why the Adventure Camp was refusing them.

She said her cottages and camps, with separate entrances and parking, are likely more safe to rent than motel rooms where they have shared entrances, parking and in the case of hotels, shared elevators.

“They are putting out these rules without really thinking, they should make rules that are fair for everyone,” she said.

Nicole Grigorov of the Mattawa River Resort and Cardinal Restaurant received the support grant said they are meeting this weekend to discuss how they can move forward as a group.

Grigorov said divisions in the community resulted from the need for business owners to operate, under whatever safety measures that are necessary, and the fear residents had of viral spread by visitors despite precautions.

“We are all getting mixed messages from all levels of government,” Grigorov said. “People need to hear our frustrations … Mattawa has a bad reputation due to snowmobiling now and our guests may never come back.”

The Health Unit closed the snowmobile trails in the area, partly due to Mattawa residents raising concerns in early January that riders were gathering together in groups and not following distancing or mask protocols.

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli couldn’t comment on the specific funding application denials without more specific information but noted that 82,000 businesses were paid $1.2 billion through the support program. They don’t have, however, a count for how many businesses were denied the small businesses support grant.

Fedeli’s office also noted that short-term rentals were permitted if the individual was in need of housing, including previously made reservations.

Demille said they were told by many people they could have accepted guests by working around the rules or ignoring them but they wanted to respect both the rules and concerns for safety.

“As a result of the 'unclear' wording in the legislation, which is subject to interpretation - there are businesses, like ours, that are slipping through the cracks and receiving conflicting information,” she said in follow up letter to the Health Unit and forwarded to the MPP’s office Friday morning.

Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca