NORTH BAY -- The North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit's decision to close all snowmobile trails in its district is drawing criticism from snowmobile enthusiasts, but also support from one northern Ontario mayor.

The move was made, in part, over concerns riders from southern Ontario would head north, potentially bringing COVID-19 with them.

Peter Van Maren, an avid sledder, said all he wants to do is hit the northern trails on his snowmobile.

"Because of what others are doing in the south, we're the ones who get punished,” said Van Maren. “I don't think that's fair."

Van Maren has been snowmobiling for 15 years and is devastated he won't be allowed to put his new snowmobile to good use.

"If there are people hanging out in groups, the police need to be out punishing those people," he said.

Anxiously waiting

Van Maren said he has spent a lot of money on new gear and trail passes and has been anxiously waiting to hit the trails due to bad snowmobiling weather.

The health unit announced it is closing all snowmobile trails in the North Bay and Parry Sound district starting Thursday. CTV News reached out to the health unit for an interview regarding the decision. No one was available to comment.

Instead, in a statement, medical officer of health Dr. Jim Chirico said the decision is due to large gatherings.

"The provincial projections do not look good. Our local hospitals have very little surge capacity and limited resources which must be protected for the health and safety of our community,” said Chirico. “We must take extra precautions to keep our district safe."

The health unit said all Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs trails and trails utilizing Crown Land have to stay closed until the province lifts the emergency stay-at-home order.

“We have been told to stay home and we need to do this," said Chirico. "I have received many complaints about people travelling from other districts to use the local snowmobile trails, thus putting our district at risk of COVID-19."

While Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer said he's disappointed snowmobile trails will be forced to close, he said it’s the right move to protect the north.

"My No. 1 priority, and our council's No. 1 priority, is that our healthcare stays intact," said Backer in a Skype interview.

Hundreds of travellers

Backer said in the last few weeks, hundreds of travellers from other parts of the province have visited Mattawa to use the trail system and that he heard concerns from residents.

"In our case, in the Town of Mattawa, we had an abundance of travellers in the last two, three weekends where we had 350-400 machines," said Backer.

A petition has sprouted up asking the health unit to keep the trails open. The North Bay Snowmobile Club has expressed its frustration on Facebook.

"This is out of our control,” the club wrote. “We are hoping that we will be able to reopen trails at the end of the state-of-emergency order."

All Van Maren hopes is he will be able to hit the trails before winter’s end.

"When I'm out snowmobiling, I don't see anybody,” he concluded. “There are large congregations (of) people not even on trails."