The Town of Lake Cowichan has lifted its ban on river tubing as the province continues Phase 2 of its reopening plan.

The ban on tubing during the summer on the Cowichan River had been announced on April 27 as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Tube Shack, a tubing company in Lake Cowichan, said it was informed on May 28 that it could operate this summer as the ban has been lifted.

Acting Mayor Tim McGonigle said the ban was initially put in place based on current guidelines and orders under the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

McGonigle said once the province entered Phase 2 of B.C.’s Restart Plan, he reached out to WorkSafeBC to see what phase tubing fell under. Tubing with enhanced protocols is included under recreation and sports of the second phase, McGonigle said.

After that, McGonigle said the town’s council reached out to The Tube Shack and Outdoor Recreation & Kayaking Adventures (ORKA ), which are the two tubing companies that are in the municipality. The council asked for a safe return to operations plan. The Tube Shack submitted a plan while ORKA has chosen not to resume operations at this time.

Aaron Frisby, the owner of The Tube Shack, said the company worked with the town’s council on a COVID-19 plan and will open on June 27.

Due to provincial guidelines of mass gatherings, 20 tubers will be released on the Cowichan River every 30 mins. Customers will have to book time advance online through the company website.

“We have to make sure our plan is fluid and up to date with WorkSafeBC and Island Health requirements as the pandemic progresses but we feel we can manage numbers and keep both our employees and customers safe through new COVID-19 measures,” Frisby said in a statement.

Tubes will be cleaned and transported in a separate vehicle from passengers at the end of their tubing trip. Shuttle capacities will also be halved as part of the attempts to maintain social distancing.

Due to the reduced capacity, there will not be shuttle-only service for people bringing their own tubes. Staff will also not be holding onto customers’ vehicle keys while they float, so drybags with straps will be provided for personal items.

“With customers booking online, we will be more than prepared for their arrival, have equipment ready for them as soon as they get to The Tube Shack, with minimum interaction with our staff and eliminating lineups altogether,” Frisby said.

McGonigle said he thinks The Tube Shack’s plan will help both the company and other businesses in town that rely on visitors coming for recreation.

“But I also think it’s a difficult decision balancing the health of our community with a very limited health infrastructure and the business entity.”

McGonigle said the town will ensure the plan is adhered to at the locations the municipality has jurisdiction, such as the municipal parks where tubers may launch. Provincial health authorities have jurisdiction over gathering numbers.

But according to McGonigle, the Cowichan River falls under the Ministry Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and Transport Canada.

“We are under the understanding that the tube can be classified as a water vessel,” McGonigle said, adding that Transport Canada would have control over water vessels while the ministry would deal with fish and more.

McGonigle said all visitors to Lake Cowichan this summer should remember that B.C. is not through the pandemic.

“It’s still important to adhere to recommendations of our public health authorities, especially Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has stated it’s not forever, it’s just for now,” McGonigle said.

“Just be respectful of the small community that you’re visiting and adhere to all the conditions that apply within the current stage 2 opening.”

He also said he hopes the community understands the limited control municipalities have over business entities, like tubing, which is zoned properly and has operated for years in the community.

“We can’t begrudge a business an opportunity for economic development. And at the time that we thought that we could hold back the business licence, we were adhering to the stage one numbers. Now that we’ve moved forward, we understand that those are a little more in-depth than they were previously,” said the acting mayor.

“I wish the proprietor but I also ask him to please adhere to his reopening plan and the community to respect that we are a recreation destination and a lot of the businesses do rely on that during the short summer months.”

Alexa Huffman