Denise Allan says it’s been like Sunfest every day recently on the streets of Lake Cowichan.
Allan, owner of Dot’s Shoe Store, said, much to her surprise, tourists have been filling the community since the summer season began.
“When I closed my business in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I was doomed,” she said.
“When I reopened in May, I had to scramble to fill my inventory and now people are everywhere and I’m busier than I ever imagined I’d be right now, and so are a lot of the shops in the area. It was not expected and it’s great. I’m loving every minute of it.”
But not everyone in Lake Cowichan is as delighted with the influx of tourists as many local businesses are.
A dispute over signs that have been placed throughout the area asking visitors to respect social distancing and other rules during the COVID-19 pandemic are indicative of the split in attitudes towards the onslaught of tourists.
The 15 signs that were placed earlier this month were meant to be a collaboration between the Cowichan Lake Chamber of Commerce, Town of Lake Cowichan, Electoral Areas I and F in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, and the Lake Cowichan First Nation.
The participants were asked to contribute $500 each to the “Welcome to Safe Cowichan Lake & District Signage Project”, but the Town of Lake Cowichan’s council voted against the expense.
Brent Clancy, president of the chamber of commerce, said it’s “unfortunate” that the town decided not to financially back the project.
“We can’t stop people from coming here and with these signs up, at least it will keep in people’s minds that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
“We do have an old population here and they have legitimate concerns about all the tourists around, but there is no recourse to stop all the people from coming into town. A lot of businesses rely on the tourists that come here each summer and it’s tough on them if they don’t come. It’s still not decided how the town’s share of the sign project will be covered.”
Tim McGonigle, acting mayor of Lake Cowichan, was involved in the planning process for the signs, but said it still had to be approved by council before the expense would be allowed.
He said council had already approved the town’s budget for the year, so there were some financial concerns with the project among some council members.
“I had a long chat with Brent [Clancy] in an effort to find a compromise and suggested that the other members of the sign project could, as a group, write a letter to council asking for reconsideration, but I have yet to see that correspondence,” McGonigle said.
“There were also some concerns on council about our limited infrastructure and the ability to have so many tourists in our small town. I suggest to tourists that want to come to Lake Cowichan that, if they are sick, to respect our community and don’t come here.”
McGonigle acknowledged that it’s an unusual year for tourists to the area in regards to their numbers and behaviour, and attributed it to many months of social isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said while it looks like it may be a record year for tourists in the town, it’s a difficult balancing act to keep businesses running and protecting the community and its seniors.
“People have been cooped up for months and are looking to let off some steam,” he said.
“There are some visitors who bring their own tubes and use private properties along the river to enter and leave the water, but sit on the private docks and many are defecating on these properties. It’s not the fault of The Tube Shack as the company has implemented a plan for its operations this summer, and passed a WCB inspection just last week. The problem is with people who bring their own tubes and feel entitled. We don’t want these tourists here.”
Aaron Frisby, owner of The Tube Shack, said at the beginning of summer, the business thought social distancing was going to be the biggest hurdle in 2020, but were wrong.
He said The Tube Shack opened the season with COVID-19 protocols in place to ensure customer safety by limiting how many tubes they can rent every 30 minutes, and customers have been very respectful of social distancing, with groups arriving together and staying apart from one another on the river and throughout the town.
But Frisby said that, due to the limited capacity of the business, this has forced those who miss out on The Tube Shack’s service to find their own way to tube and transport their gear.
“We have had a real problem with some of those who bring their own tubes to the river drinking excessively, polluting the river, using foul language, urinating on private home owners’ land and simply ditching their cheap tubes at the end of the ride,” he said.
“It’s a different weekend crowd this summer it seems. Riverfront home owners, the Town of Lake Cowichan and The Tube Shack are all unanimous in their message to would-be tubers. If you are coming to Lake Cowichan to party on the river, don’t come. We have been successful in transforming this activity into a family friendly pastime and like many things, 2020 has changed that.”
Frisby acknowledged that most issues were on weekends and hoped that the start of summer was maybe a blow-out for some coming out of lock down.
“There’s not many activities you can do safely during this pandemic, so tubing has become really popular,” he said.
“People can space out on the river, keep six feet away and being outside is a huge bonus. Even with the increase of numbers this season, we aren’t seeing any areas on the river, at Little Beach or at Saywell Park, that come close to the provincial 50 person maximum-gathering restriction, which is great. I just hope a small group of people doesn’t ruin this for everyone.”
Frisby said that RCMP enforcement of public drinking increased over the weekend with some success, and is seen as the solution to this issue by many in the area.