Several tourist hotspots in North Simcoe are anxiously anticipating welcoming back visitors Friday when the province enters Step 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan.
Mary Ann Milne, executive director of the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, said a rolling series of lockdowns and reductions to services for the nature reserve over the course of the pandemic was challenging.
“Not only was there a devastating financial impact,” stated Milne, “Wye Marsh has had to lay off and bring back staff members several times over the past 16 months which creates a lot of uncertainty in their personal lives. The remaining staff members had to constantly change the way services were provided” through fundraisers, virtual school programs, and virtual camp programs like the Camp@Home kits.
Trails were re-opened at the Wye Marsh in early March of this year to encourage physical activity for those isolated in their homes over the long winter months, but only after it was allowed and deemed safe for the populace.
“We have resumed offering kayak eco-tours for pre-booked small groups as well,” said Kim Hacker, senior customer service coordinator for the Wye Marsh. Trail ambassadors consisting of volunteers will also be available to answer questions while helping to spot and identify wildlife.
Safety will be paramount at Wye Marsh, Hacker said.
“We are working to keep guests safe by requiring masks indoors, providing hand sanitizing stations at all entrances/exits, and maintaining single-direction traffic where possible," Hacker explained.
"Outdoors guests are welcome to remove their masks, provided they can socially distance themselves,” she said, noting frequent cleaning and protective plexiglass to protect staff and visitors is also being enabled.
The trail system, birds of prey fields, display hall, gift store, and washrooms will be open from 9 a.m to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $12 for adults, and $9 for seniors (65+) and children ages 4 to 17; children ages 3 and under are free. Further information is available at the Wye Marsh website.
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Midland and Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene, both of which run under the umbrella of Huronia Historical Parks (HHP), were allowed to reopen to the public at the end of June in-line with the province’s Step 1 plan.
According to Emily Brown, manager of marketing and visitor services with HHP, the provincial government has mandated enhanced health and safety measures for staff and visitors, which follow Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) rules and guidelines, as a condition of allowing access to the historic sites.
As part of its phased reopening plan, HHP will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last admission at 3 p.m.) Wednesday through Sunday, and will be offering a reduced entrance fee for the 2021 season at $5 per person. Children 12 and under are free.
A guided tour app for HHP is available, free to download, for both Apple smart devices and Android smart devices, featuring directions, restaurant information, and more. However, both sites will have their indoor museums closed until Step 3 of the reopening plan on Friday.
Further information on the reopening of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and Discovery Harbour is available at the Huronia Historic Parks website.
The closure of the Martyr’s Shrine at the onset of the pandemic was a strategic move, given its large annual tourist drawings between May and October, officials say.
“This meant that our normal population of pilgrims that range about 120,000, plus education programs for three different high school districts, and university programming on site” were put on pause “depending on what level of protocols the provincial government had in place at any given time," said director Father Michael Knox.
In adapting to serve the needs of those seeking spiritual guidance and support over the last year and a half, the shrine has provided in several ways. Online mass draws more than 1,000 people each Sunday, pre-recorded retreats allow for daily reflections, and the public is able to book a Jesuit to light a candle and say a prayer for them.
Most recently with pandemic restrictions being reduced, the guest house was able to allow a single visitor to stay in isolation for their eight-day retreat.
“A final bonus is that we’ve opened up for family packages where groups of six can pre-book following the COVID protocols, and have a morning or an afternoon experience as a family on the site, guided by a Jesuit who is with them. That’s been extremely popular, and we have over 60 bookings already right now,” Knox shared.
It came at the cost of a reduction in permanent staff as well as seasonal workers not being hired, except for grounds crew workers for the 2021 season. Knox stated that “the plan is to stay closed for the most part through this year, and reopen next year” on the first weekend of May.
“I think one of the graces that came from this experience was that it gave all institutions an opportunity to reflect on the best way that they can serve others, and perhaps offered new and creative ways that will continue past the pandemic.
Information on services provided by the Martyr’s Shrine are available on their website.
Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca