It was a hot and humid Saturday in Niagara-on-the-Lake and people were embracing the return of outdoor amenities as the first part of the provincial government's reopening plan came into effect.
Queen Street was bustling with activity, though there was still plenty of room for families and couples to walk the street without getting too boxed in.
It didn’t seem as busy as one might have thought, but the long weekend was just getting started. By the end of Monday, mobile data showed around 175,000 people had come into town, Lord Mayor Betty Disero said.
Of those, 73,000 came on Monday alone, which was also "the first time this year that attendance from the GTA was higher than from the Niagara region," Disero said in an interview.
Those numbers seem to reflect the growing desire people have to return to pre-pandemic life as the summer approaches.
“We think (the reopening plan) is great. We’re really looking forward to it,” Grimsby resident Linda Ridgeway said as she and husband Bryan walked down Queen Street in Old Town.
They have a cottage in NOTL but have not been coming down due to the stay-at-home order.
“It’s the first time I’ve walked into a store in months,” Bryan said.
For many, the relaxing of outdoor restrictions provided opportunities they have not had for a long time.
“This is our first time walking down Main Street since, what? January?” Bryan asked his wife.
It wasn’t just the opportunity to do a little storefront shopping that had people capitalizing on the sunny long weekend. The Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club also was packed with enthusiasts.
“Thank God,” golfer Dave Anthony told The Lake Report.
“I got all my chores done and I was bored,” he joked.
But Doug Ford’s relaxation of golf restrictions was too little, too late, Anthony said. He was not impressed it took so long for people to get back to walking the fairways.
“I spent my life as an engineer making decisions based on science and data. They should not have opened in February and anyone with half a brain knew that,” Anthony said.
“There’s no science supporting that people shouldn’t be out here in the open air getting exercise. Nobody got any disease golfing last year.”
Anthony took issue with Ford’s reasoning for closing golf courses. Earlier in May, Ford justified his closure of golf courses by saying golfers carpool and socialize together afterward, thus creating a situation for COVID to spread.
That just doesn't happen, Anthony said, noting “99.9 per cent of golfers don’t get in one car and go and have pop in someone’s basement. It’s just demeaning.”
“I can’t believe how disrespectful it was for him to say that.”
University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness told the Toronto Star the current wave is workplace-driven. He said closing golf courses and outdoor activities as a solution was “perverse.”
Ford's “actions and his directives are a result of fear. It was a total disregard of science. His failure to correct his own mistakes is petulant,” Anthony said.
Along with the reopening of golf courses, the province also allowed outdoor facilities such as tennis courts, basketball courts and baseball diamonds to resume.
Scott Neufeld is a NOTL resident who runs the Niagara-on-the-Lake Masters Slow Pitch League.
Under the provincial reopening plan organized sports are not allowed to commence until the second phase, which is estimated to begin early July.
That didn’t stop Neufeld from heading out to Centennial Sports Park in Virgil and knocking some baseballs around by himself.
“It’s been a long time” since he was on a baseball diamond, Neufeld beamed.
“We’re already looking to getting our season started. Hopefully by mid-July. It’s gonna be awesome.”
The league that Neufeld runs has been active in NOTL for over four decades.
“There’s some players that have been playing in the league for 40 years,” Neufeld said.
Normally, the league plays every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the summer. Neufeld says everyone’s welcome to join in, provided the games stay under the 25-player limit under phase two of the reopening plan.
As life was beginning to return to normal outdoors, many people took solace and spent their recreational time in a more private manner.
All over NOTL people have been turning to their gardens for exercise, fresh air and comfort during the past 15 months of the pandemic.
Chautauqua resident Kathy Morris is well known for her garden on Shakespeare Avenue.
Brandon Carter, her neighbour across the street, was also tending his garden. He said that it has always been something he enjoys doing and the pandemic has had little effect on that. But he calls Morris “the real gardener” in the neighbourhood.
Morris has been working on her garden for 41 years, she said.
“If I ever moved, I’d be taking this whole garden with me,” Morris said. “I think about it all the time, the logistics of how I would do that.”
Morris, who retired last August, said her garden has always been her perfect escape, especially in the pandemic.
“It’s been so nice to be able to do this during the week, not just on the weekends,” she said.
Morris says she’s been at it so long that people will drive by and ask her for gardening advice. “I like to spread my knowledge and I give away plants in the spring.”
Fellow Chautauqua resident Mary Kilmer moved into a small house on Addison Avenue after her husband passed away in 2020.
She said her garden has been “essential” to her well-being throughout COVID.
Her garden and trees have been an oasis of comfort as the social restrictions of the pandemic continue.
Gesturing at a beautiful old oak tree on her property that has been grown over with vines, Kilmer commented, “I think fairies still live in places like that.”
Her specialty is irises. She has dozens of them growing in her garden and lamented that they would not bloom for another eight or 10 days. She wished people could see them over the long weekend.
We’re not out of the pandemic yet though and Kilmer is grateful that she’ll have her garden to weather the rest of the storm.
“It’s made a world of a difference in my life.”
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report