For more than 100 years, tobogganing at Couchiching Golf & Country club has been a favourite winter tradition for many local families.
However, this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, some local residents have raised concerns about over-crowding and an inability to physically distance at the popular Peter Street hill.
Over the weekend, Edward Novosky, president of Couchiching Golf & Country Club, saw multiple social media posts from residents expressing their disappointment about large crowds that were reportedly seen at the toboggan hill.
Novosky concedes the hill seemed busy over the weekend.
“It seems pretty busy out there. It’s probably busier than normal on the odd day,” Novosky said.
The complaints on social media don’t come as a surprise to Novosky, who has been following the recent news about local ski hills being closed down amid the province-wide lockdown meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Everyone has different opinions on activities that take place outside, including ski hills and so on, so it’s not surprising to me,” Novosky said.
Novosky believes outdoor activities should be, for the most part, considered safe.
“I don’t know that it’s any different than if kids went to Walmart with their parents. I tend to think they would be safer engaging in an activity that is outside,” he said.
Novosky also believes it’s important for local children and families to have opportunities to get outside during the lockdown and take part in activities that can be done safely.
“I think it’s important for everybody to be able to get outside. The city has put money into things like outdoor rinks to try and give people the opportunity to stay active,” he explained.
While Novosky has no plans to close the toboggan hill due to the reports of over-crowding and lack of social distancing, he’s not sure that he could close the hill even if he wanted to.
“Once the snow comes, whether the hill is closed or not, people climb the fence, there are access points all around with the way the golf course is, so people are going to be there one way or another, Novosky said.
“We couldn’t enforce it even if we wanted to, not without fencing, barbed wire, and putting up no trespassing signs, and we are not un-supportive of people in Orillia participating in such an iconic thing. We get calls every year from people who are asking if it’s open," he said. "To police it would be close to impossible.”
Novosky notes that the toboggan hill is technically the responsibility of the City of Orillia during the winter months, as the city not only installs safety fencing each year, but they also provide an insurance policy on the hill during the winter months.
“Part of our contractual agreement with the city is they look after the health and safety of that part of the property over the winter, so obviously if social distancing and large crowds are happening, I think it would be up to them to do something,” Novosky said.
On Monday morning, just after 11 a.m., there were about 20 people at the toboggan hill. One of those was local resident Mike Lee, who was watching over his grandson, Cole.
Lee believes tobogganing is a recreational activity that can be done safely as long as people use common sense.
“How do you control it? Really? The city would have to hire people to control it. But instead, I think people can use basic common sense,” Lee said.
Lee believes if the city took away access to the hill, residents would rebel and find a way to use the hill anyway.
“It’s been here for 100 years. There are very few people who have lived in Orillia who have never been on this hill. If you didn’t allow it this year, people would break in and do it anyway,” he said.
Lee says giving children activities to participate in over the winter is important for their mental and physical wellbeing.
“It’s important for the kids to have something to do, and If it looks too crowded, people can stand back for a while and wait for it to slow down,” he said.
Marc Frustaci was tobogganing with his girlfriend and his three children on Monday. Frustaci says he and his family have been using the hill, with caution, so far this winter.
“To be honest, we always try to keep our distance when we are here, and if it is too crowded when we drive past, we don’t stop in,” he said.
Frustaci believes tobogganing is a safe, and rare activity for families to engage in while the province remains under lockdown.
“People have to do something, even with everything going on. If everything is limited then you have to start worrying about people’s mental health with having nothing to do,” he said.
Frustaci believes putting restrictions on tobogganing, or banning it altogether, would be excessive and unnecessary.
“With it being an outdoor activity, I don’t know what else you could really do besides keeping your distance. I don’t know if you would want to limit people or have people wear masks and stuff, I feel like that might be overdoing it,” he said.
Staff from the Orillia Parks, Recreations and Culture department could not be reached for comment in time of publication of this article.