EGANVILLE, ONT. -- The Bonnechere Caves, a major tourist attraction in the Ottawa Valley, will remain closed to the public until May 2021.

Owner Chris Hinsperger says the site near Eganville is not a safe place to be during the COVID-19 pandemic, given the amount of people that could be found on any given summer day at the caves.

“Any day you drop by here in July and August, you would be on the property with maybe one to 300 other people,” says Hinsperger. “We are probably the biggest daily social gathering in the Ottawa Valley under normal circumstances.”

The conditions do not get any better once visitors venture down into the caves.

“Physical distancing is not part of our cave tour. We go down with a guide, some of our passages aren’t even six-feet wide. So getting people down there in a safe manner; virtually impossible.”

Hinsperger is also concerned with cleaning the touch points like benches and handrails throughout the cave. He fears daily sanitization would harm the environment and the animals that inhabit the cave in the offseason.

Mask wearing while underground is not an option Hinsperger is interested in testing out either, with limited headspace and poor ventilation inside the caves.

The well-known attraction staying closed until next year is also having an impact on neighbouring communities, with no out of town tourists visiting restaurants or shops.

“We recognize that not being open has an economic impact on the area,” says Hinsperger. “I’ve been in discussion with my fellow business colleagues, they know my position. They know that the caves not being open impacts them financially, but they also know that we’re taking a financial hit.”

Hinsperger says he and his wife, who co-owns the site, have saved up enough money to manage the closed attraction until next year. Visitors still stop by the caves daily hoping to see what they can, but Hinsperger is not put off by having to turn them away.

“I’m not losing that business, I’m actually deferring it till next year,” Hinsperger says. “Because people I’ve talked to have been so absolutely supportive. They’re not saying, 'Chris we’ll try and make it back next year.' They’re looking me in the eye and they’re saying, 'we will absolutely be back next year.'”