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Why I Chose Not to Go to My Muskoka Cottage

For two decades now, I have been blessed with owning a cottage in the heart of Muskoka. Over the last several weeks, many people have asked me why I have not packed up the family and nestled in the beautiful woods given that our children are out of school and my partner and I are fortunate to be able to work from home.

Since the pandemic began, Muskoka has been overrun with cottagers. Even through the winter, locals have been awestruck by the traffic of oversized SUVs, Audis, and BMWs, a phenomenon they have never witnessed during their time in Muskoka. In speaking with an appraiser in Muskoka, he said that he has never seen so much activity in his 45 years of working in the region. He has been consistently surprised to appraise cottages that had Toronto renters in them during the once quiet months of February, March and April.

Yet public health guidelines are clear that, during a stay at home order, not only are we meant to stay home for all non-essential needs but we should not be moving from one community to another. Why then, are cottagers still making the trek north? Well first, they likely think that they are still complying with the stay at home order. After all, they’re staying at home, just their second home. Never mind the fact that they regularly get groceries, alcohol, gasoline, and hardware supplies and that health care facilities were not equipped for their arrival. Second, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is quite low because they went to the cottage, which is isolated relative to a busy indoor place in the city. Third, many likely refer to their cottage as a remedy for their mental health concerns. Finally, there is an elitism that is likely at play among Muskoka cottagers. Not so different from those who feel that it is their right to travel to their homes in Florida despite clear guidelines stipulating that doing so is not in the best interests of Canadians, cottagers feel that they have a right to do this.

Now I love cottage country. Over the last two decades though I have seen it change quite dramatically from a place that was once accessible to the middle class to one that is restricted to the 0.01%. With the dominance of this bourgeoisie class comes a very specific type of attitude and behaviour that is simply not suited to a pandemic where self-interest needs to be tempered for collective action. Cottagers today are as helpful in stemming covid-19 as gasoline is to snuffing out a fire. COVID-19 requires that we sacrifice what it is that we would prefer to do despite the fact that we will see no personal benefit as a result of doing so. In other words, this virus requires a level of collective sophistication where one has to disregard their own desires for the lives of people they don’t even know. Cottagers simply do not fit the profile for this type of collective action.

Going to the cottage, especially now in Ontario, is the wrong thing to do. While I think it is relatively safe for my family to make the trek, we are without a doubt putting the lives of others at risk. But, more importantly, we should not go because it is important to set an example. Studies in psychology have confirmed that people evaluate whether a course of action is right or wrong by comparing their decisions with those in our social group. A social group could be parents of young children, wealthy seniors, or peers in a particular neighbourhood. We all model ourselves according the perceived average behaviour of our peer group. Think of more benign examples where you have felt that you might be falling behind your peers whether that be renovating your house, going on a family vacation, or upgrading your vehicle. But when it comes to a pandemic, this can be incredibly dangerous as it is now in Ontario.

As the starting point of the pandemic, more than half (60-70%) of people in these peer groups were willing to sacrifice their own desires for the common good. But within each peer group will be 10-20% of people who are egoists, those who are quite willing to pursue their interests at the expense of others. When the first group of willing participants sees enough egoists breaking the guidelines, they are that much more willing to justify doing the same. And then, as some of these wiling participants break the guidelines further, others are more inclined leading to a snowball effect. We therefore self-regulate our behaviour based on the average behaviour of others in our peer group.

So, why don’t I go to my cottage?

When those in my peer group learn that I am not going to the cottage, they will then be more likely to self-regulate their own temptations to break the rules, which over time, as more and more people share their decision to stay home and follow the guidelines, less and less people feel that they can justify diverging from this norm.

For those of you out there who can justify going against public health guidelines and at the same time see the sobbing nurses asking for vigilance and discipline, recognize that the problem is less about whether you get the virus as much as it is about giving license to your peer group that following suit is that much more okay.


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